The Books: Aspects of the Novel: ‘Prophecy,’ by E.M. Forster


On the essays shelf (yes, there are still more books to excerpt in my vast library. I can’t seem to stop this excerpts-from-my-library project. I started it in 2006!)

NEXT BOOK: Aspects of the Novel, a series of lectures by E.M. Forster.

These were a series of lectures given by E.M. Forster on “aspects of the novel” in 1927. Forster thought there were 7 aspects to any good novel: Story, characters, plot, fantasy, prophecy, pattern, and rhythm. He wanted to examine these “aspects” outside of chronology, to try and seek out connections between authors and books that may not be evident if you only look at things on a timeline. There is so much compartmentalization in the teaching of literature, and it’s gotten even more exaggerated now, where entire departments in universities are devoted to one grouping or another: women’s literature, minority literature, lesbian literature, etc. There is nothing wrong with that in and of itself. In many ways, it is a positive development. Voices have been ignored due to the predominance of the accepted canon. There is redress in these types of studies. The giant names overshadow all else, and so sometimes it is good to get those giant names out of the way to see what the landscape was without them. There were all kinds of people writing all kinds of things in all eras. What was going on with them? The danger in that approach, when taken too far, is that you lose sight of the whole. And the “whole” – which includes the “canon” (the ‘dead white male’ brigade) – is what helps form culture, trends of thought, style, the whole shebang. It’s like a jazz musician or a modern dancer: the best of these know the classical forms inside and out, and it is only because of that that they are able to “riff” and “go off”. They are reacting to the classical structures. Their deviations can only be fully understood when you know the old-fashioned forms. The same is true with literature. Much of literature reacts to each other. It’s unavoidable. This is what Harold Bloom called “the anxiety of influence.” It’s interesting, if you read interviews with current-day Irish authors, James Joyce inevitably comes up. Or Yeats, but mostly Joyce. They are writing in a landscape rich with writers, rich with an intellectual and literary tradition, and they have the monolithic reputation of Joyce looming over their landscape. They may resent him for that, they may love him for that, the responses vary, but he DEMANDS a response. Much of literature post-Ulysses was a reaction to it. It’s kind of like Elvis. Elvis came out of the swamp of mixed-influences in the Memphis world: black gospel, white gospel, rhythm and blues, country music. He was imitating the black singers he admired, the guys who played on Beale Street, or sang in their church choirs. He felt the connection with his own white tradition there, that there was something to be mixed up, that he could sing that way too. Elvis’ influence was so predominant that even just a year later everyone who was coming up was imitating Elvis. And while many of these performers were wonderful, you can hear that the sound thins out, becomes generic. Their focus is on one figure (Elvis), and Elvis’ focus was on … everyone. Elvis’ influence in music was like Joyce’s. He was the game-changer. Country music was practically destroyed by Elvis inadvertently. It took them 15 years to re-discover their own identity after he dominated their charts. The powers-that-be in Nashville finally came to the decision to leave him OFF their charts – because there was no way they could compete. To go back to Ireland: Irish writers have to deal with the Elvis-like figure of Joyce. Still. To this day.

Forster gave these lectures in 1927, in the midst of the full-flowering of the modernists. T.S. Eliot, Joyce, Gertrude Stein, Ford Madox Ford, Ezra Pound, the whole lot. Ulysses was still banned in most places. The 19th century was still very close. (T.S. Eliot, famously, said after he finished Ulysses, “James Joyce has killed the 19th century.”) Talk about your anxiety of influence! The 19th century featured such minor writers as Charles Dickens, Charlotte Bronte, George Eliot, Herman Melville, Henry James, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Dostoevsky, Tolstoy … These people changed our conception of literature. These people created the modern novel. So Forster is speaking from the midst of a world that was not only acknowledging all that, but wanting to break free of it as well. The influence of, say, Dickens, is so overwhelming that it may make a writer want to put down his pen forever!

One of the “aspects” Forster discussed in a lecture was the aspect of “prophecy.” In his other lectures, about story and characters … the references run rampant because there are so many examples. All novels have story and characters. But, in his estimation, there was this thing called “prophecy,” a unique aspect, and only a couple of authors “had it.” Here is how Forster puts it:

His theme is the universe, or something universal, but he is not necessarily going to “say” anything about the universe; he proposes to sing, and the strangeness of song arising in the halls of fiction is bound to give us a shock.

Forster elaborates (and this will be key in the excerpt below):

Prophecy – in our sense – is a tone of voice … We shall have to attend to the novelist’s state of mind and to the actual words he uses; we shall neglect as far as we can the problems of common sense. As far as we can: for all novels contain tables and chairs, and most readers of fiction look for them first. Before we condemn him for affectation and distortion we must realize his view-point. He is not looking at the tables and chairs at all, and that is why they are out of focus.

In speaking of Dostoevsky in this same lecture (and Forster considered Dostoevsky to be one of the “prophets,” as he defined it):

Mitya is a round character, but he is capable of extension. He does not conceal anything (mysticism), he does not mean anything (symbolism), he is merely Dmitri Karamazov, but to be merely a person in Dostoevsky is to join up with all the other people far back. Consequently the tremendous current suddenly flows – for me in those closing words: “I’ve had a good dream, gentleman.” Have I had that good dream too? No, Dostoevsky’s characters ask us to share something deeper than their experiences. They convey to us a sensation that is partly physical – the sensation of sinking into a tremendous globe and seeing our experience floating far above us on its surface, tiny, remote, yet ours.

And that experience that Forster describes, that reading experience, is what he calls “prophecy.”

I love his observation about these “prophetic books”:

Anyhow, it characterizes these novels and gives them what is always provocative in a work of art: roughness of surface. While they pass under our eyes they are full of dents and grooves and lumps and spikes which draw from us little cries of approval and disapproval. When they have past, the roughness is forgotten, they become as smooth as the moon.

Forster does not see these “prophets” as philosophers. Many novelists whom he does not classify as “prophetic” are philosophers, and they have a philosophy, very clear in the reading of their books. Henry James comes to mind. Thomas Hardy comes to mind. George Eliot comes to mind. Forster believes that the prophets do not think all that much about the meaning of things, at least not in the way that other novelists do. They are not concerned with meaning, or self-reflection, or self-examination. They are not concerned with the inner workings of the human mind. They are concerned with the universal. They actually have a perception OF the universal – which very few people have, and many novelists strain for that universal feeling – but in the prophet there is no strain.

I admit that this is not something I had considered, but it is really fun to wrestle with Forster’s thoughts. Ideas are there to be taken on, try them on for size, really sit with them, you’re not going to lose yourself entirely, or be dominated or whatever. This is the rigor of intellectual conversation, this is how it goes, and it’s bracing.

Forster has given the matter much thought. In his mind, with all of the books he has read and all the preparation he had done for the lectures, he only came up with four authors who could be classed as “prophets” as he defines the term: Dostoevsky, Melville, Emily Bronte and D.H. Lawrence.

He goes into each one, providing examples, and it’s all just fascinating. I admit to not having read much D.H. Lawrence beyond his poetry (which I really enjoy), and Lady Chatterlye’s Lover. His prose never really did it for me, but it was years ago that I tried to read him. Perhaps it’s time for a re-visit. After all, I found Moby Dick a crushing bore in high school and now I count it as one of my favorite books of all time. (Speaking of which, Forster’s words on Moby Dick, which will make up part of the excerpt today, is my favorite thing I’ve come across about that book. Camille Paglia’s chapter on Moby Dick in Sexual Personae is also well worth seeking out, but Forster, for me, NAILS the truly strange out-of-time bold and radical feeling of that book. It’s not “ahead of its time.” It is timeless.) Forster is also brilliant on Withering Heights, but I’ll just excerpt the Moby Dick section.

I have read and re-read Moby Dick. I succumb to it. It demands that you succumb. It is an extremely bossy book that way, similar to Ulysses. If you do not succumb, the book will not crack open to you. It will seem impenetrable. The sections on whaling, descriptions of the different parts of the whale, they go on for three pages, it’s a cetological lecture, and then in the final paragraph – WHOOSH. Melville whips back the curtain and shows you the whole universe. It happens repeatedly. It takes my breath away. My favorite example comes from the chapter about blubber. Melville tells us all about blubber: why the whale needs it, how it operates, what it provides the whale. And then …

A word or two more concerning this matter of the skin or blubber of the whale. It has already been said, that it is stript from him in long pieces, called blanket-pieces. Like most sea-terms, this one is very happy and significant. For the whale is indeed wrapt up in his blubber as in a real blanket or counterpane; or, still better, an Indian poncho slipt over his head, and skirting his extremity. It is by reason of this cosy blanketing of his body, that the whale is enabled to keep himself comfortable in all weathers, in all seas, times, and tides. What would become of a Greenland whale, say, in those shuddering, icy seas of the north, if unsupplied with his cosy surtout? True, other fish are found exceedingly brisk in those Hyperborean waters; but these, be it observed, are your cold-blooded, lungless fish, whose very bellies are refrigerators; creatures, that warm themselves under the lee of an iceberg, as a traveller in winter would bask before an inn fire; whereas, like man, the whale has lungs and warm blood. Freeze his blood, and he dies. How wonderful is it then – except after explanation – that this great monster, to whom corporeal warmth is as indispensable as it is to man; how wonderful that he should be found at home, immersed to his lips for life in those Arctic waters! where, when seamen fall overboard, they are sometimes found, months afterwards, perpendicularly frozen into the hearts of fields of ice, as a fly is found glued in amber. But more surprising is it to know, as has been proved by experiment, that the blood of a Polar whale is warmer than that of a Borneo negro in summer.

It does seem to me, that herein we see the rare virtue of a strong individual vitality, and the rare virtue of thick walls, and the rare virtue of interior spaciousness. Oh, man! admire and model thyself after the whale! Do thou, too, remain warm among ice. Do thou, too, live in this world without being of it. Be cool at the equator; keep thy blood fluid at the Pole. Like the great dome of St. Peter’s, and like the great whale, retain, O man! in all seasons a temperature of thine own!

That, my friends, is the voice of a prophet.

On to the excerpt.

Excerpt from Aspects of the Novel: ‘Prophecy,’ by E.M. Forster

Moby Dick is an easy book, as long as we read it as a yarn or an account of whaling interspersed with snatches of poetry. But as soon was we catch the song in it, it grows difficult and immensely important. Narrowed and hardened into words the spiritual theme of Moby Dick is as follows: a battle against evil conducted too long or in the wrong way. The White Whale is evil, and Captain Ahab is warped by constant pursuit until his knight-errantry turns into revenge. These are words – a symbol for the book if we want one – but they do not carry as much further than the acceptance of the book as a yarn – perhaps they carry us backwards, for they may mislead us into harmonizing the incidents, and so losing their roughness and richness. The idea of a contest we may retain: all action is a battle, the only happiness is peace. But contest between what? We get false if we say that it is between good and evil or between two unreconciled evils. The essential in Moby Dick, its prophetic song, flows athwart the action and the surface morality like an undercurrent. It lies outside words. Even at the end, when the ship has gone down with the bird of heaven pinned to its mast, and the empty coffin, bouncing up from the vortex, has carried Ishmael back to the world – even then we cannot catch the words of the song. There has been stress, with intervals: but no explicable solution, certainly no reaching back into universal pity and love; no “Gentlemen, I’ve had a good dream.”

The extraordinary nature of the book appears in one of its early incidents – the sermon about Jonah and the friendship with Queequeg.

The sermon has nothing to do with Christianity. It asks for endurance or loyalty without hope of reward. The preacher “kneeling in the pulpit’s bows, folded his large brown hands across his chest, uplifted his closed eyes, and offered a prayer so deeply devout that he seemed kneeling and praying at the bottom of the sea.” Then he works up and up and concludes on a note of joy that is far more terrifying than a menace.

Delight is to him whose strong arms yet support him when the ship of this base treacherous world has gone down beneath him. Delight is to him who gives no quarter in the truth, and kills, burns and destroys all sin though he pluck it out from under the robes of Senators and Judges. Delight – top-gallant delight is to him, who acknowledges no law or lord, but the Lord his God, and is only a patron to heaven. Delight is to him, whom all the waves of the billows of the seas of the boisterous mob can never shake from this sure Keel of the Ages. And eternal delight and deliciousness will be his, who coming to lay him down, can say with his final breath – O Father! – chiefly known to me by thy rod – mortal or immortal, here I die. I have striven to be Thine, more than to be this world’s or mine own. Yet this is nothing: I leave eternity to Thee: for what is man that he should live out the lifetime of his God?

I believe it is not a coincidence that the last ship we encounter at the end of the book before the final catastrophe should be called the Delight; a vessel of ill omen who has herself encountered Moby Dick and been shattered by him. But what the connection was in the prophet’s mind I cannot say, nor could he tell us.

Immediately after the sermon, Ishmael makes a passionate alliance with the cannibal Queequeg, and it looks for a moment that the book is to be a saga of blood-brotherhood. But human relationships mean little to Melville, and after a grotesque and violent entry, Queequeg is almost forgotten. Almost – not quite. Towards the end he falls ill and a coffin is made for him which he does not occupy, as he recovers. It is this coffin, serving as a life-buoy, that saves Ishmael from the final whirlpool, and this again is no coincidence, but an unformulated connection that sprang up in Melville’s mind. Moby Dick is full of meanings: its meaning is a different problem. It is wrong to turn the Delight or the coffin into symbols, because even if the symbolism is correct, it silences the book. Nothing can be stated about Moby Dick except that it is a contest. The rest is song.

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9 Responses to The Books: Aspects of the Novel: ‘Prophecy,’ by E.M. Forster

  1. mutecypher says:

    I’ve begun reading Aspects of The Novel. I love the sideways comparison he makes between pseudo-scholarship and hypocrisy in the introduction: “Pseudo-scholarship is, on its good side, the homage paid by ignorance to learning.”

    I think I see what he’s getting at with prophecy: the novelist showing the reading something that something is important, but with no attempt to explain why the thing is important. I need to get to that section to understand more fully.

    You can see why John Huston wanted Orson Welles to read that sermon.

    • mutecypher says:

      “the reading something that something is important ” = “the reader that something is important”. (Note to self: more coffee before commenting.)

    • sheila says:

      Oh man the whole “pseudo-science” thing is so relevant – I see it all the time reading criticism now. It’s disheartening. But he pretty much nails it. Also what I see a lot of is things (movies/books) being reviewed on their subject matter – as opposed to HOW they are put together. I don’t care if the message is a right-wing message or a left-wing message – is it well made? Is it interesting? Does the editing have a point? Does the music go with the story? How about the direction? I see a LOT of analysis that is basically propping up this or that side’s propaganda – which isn’t analysis at all. Or, it’s political analysis but it’s not necessarily film criticism or book reviews. I saw it with American Sniper, Zero Dark Thirty – it was refreshing when critics actually talked about the MOVIE, not their own glorious enlightened view of American foreign policy. Enlightened should probably be in quotation marks.

      In terms of prophecy: Yeah, I re-read the section this morning (so glad you’re reading the book!) – and he goes into way more depth, and his commentary on Heathcliff and Catherine is extremely interesting. I’m not sure I can sum it up!

      But I will say that his observation about Moby Dick – that it’s a “yarn” – is so spot on. And if you removed those “boring” chapters of cetology – you’d just have a yarn. But those cetology chapters cannot be removed. And no matter which way you angle the book, it eludes classification and it eludes being summed up.

      This, I think, is beautifully accurate: ” It is wrong to turn the Delight or the coffin into symbols, because even if the symbolism is correct, it silences the book.”

      I think that’s one of the reasons why audiences and critics resisted Moby Dick for so long and it took 80 years or whatever to make it into the curriculum. Academics like things that can be summed up. “Here is what this is about. Here is what this shows.” Not so easy to do with Moby Dick.

      • mutecypher says:

        I’m looking forward to this section. I suspect he doesn’t get as graphic as Camille does, with her references to circle-jerks when the shipmates are kneading the spermaceti.

        • sheila says:

          I know. But someone had to make that connection …

          That section actually did turn my stomach – what I remember most is the image of the hands of the workers turning totally smooth after days of working with the sperm.

        • mutecypher says:

          Kinda based off your drama teacher’s Shakespeare quote, I’m thinking of an internet “Are you Camille Paglia?” test.

          Step 1: Think of any great work of art.

          Q: Is it about sex?

          A: Yes! (you may be Camille Paglia)
          A: No, not all of them (you are definitely not Camille Paglia)
          A: No, not the one I was thinking of. (eunuch!)

          • sheila says:

            Well, like I said, someone has to make those connections. Male academics can be pretty prissy. I’m reading a lot of analysis on Shakespeare right now for my re-reading project – a couple essays before each re-read of the play – and sometimes I want to say, “Guy. Shakespeare wrote a sexy romp here full of dirty jokes. Filthy nasty jokes about vaginas and erect penises. Every other word is a double entendre for sex. It’s also FUNNY. Being so dry and intellectual about it misses the whole point.”

          • sheila says:

            and speaking of Paglia – gonna be doing some excerpts from her essay collections next. Should be fun!

    • sheila says:

      and thanks for that Orson Welles clip – YES.

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