I’m reading and re-reading a few good books as of late. I find myself drawn back time and again to E.M. Forster’s Howards End. The epigraph of the book simply reads: “Only connect…”. Just like that with the strange ellipsis and everything. “Only connect…”
The novel is loosely about reconciling two families – the Schlegels and the Wilcoxes – one representing the liberal intelligentsia and the other the capitalist bourgeosie, but that is not really the crux of this deeply optimistic book. The issue it addresses by means of the two families, is whether culture matters, what it means to “build a home”, and how to feel inner satisfaction and wholeness. When I say “whether culture matters”, I mean it as Matthew Arnold once wrote of it as “a pursuit of a harmonious perfection, developing all sides of our humanity; and as a general perfection, developing all parts of our society.” The tension of the novel rests in whether culture at the personal level depends on material aims and wealth. If it does, how does one navigate “developing society” with “developing all sides of our humanity?”
“Only connect…,” but how?
Since Forster penned Howards End 100 years have passed. So, how does the “only connect…”tagline look to this internet blogger, and how goes that tension between material and spiritual? Mechanical and natural? (Almost seems too ironic to be blogging about this to an unknown and depersonalized, yet ostensibly, “connected” reader.) Regardless, I am aware of these age old tensions, they are within me as well. Just to dwell on the fact that I know this I started reading The Art of Happiness by the Dalai Lama this week. He thinks that “The lack of social contact, the lack of sense of community, may be the most pressing social problem of the new millennium.”
Well actually Dalai…Forster thought it was the most pressing problem of the last millenium, so not much has changed. The problem still rests on willingness. Am I willing to step out of my own centered life and put myself out there for someone else? The Lama book sites a statistic from a General Social Survey done by the University of Chicago in both 1935 and 2005 that polled how many friends, on average, an individual relies upon. The numbers in 1935 was a modest 10-12 people. 2005? Two. The average amount of friends an individual relies upon is 2.
I just keep staring at that number over and over. Really? Just two? I guess that isn’t so outlandishly incomprehensible. Enter blogging – not so much to make something new occur, but simply to be willing to keep connecting. It’s simply part of the struggle to stay connected in meaningful ways to other people in an increasingly depersonalized society, and to find a spiritual home in this world.
So, my thoughts this evening turn to Albert Camus. In a quote that has achieved some modest popularity, and in many ways seems to be at odds with a great deal of his writing, he wrote “In the depth of winter, I finally learned that within me lay an invincible summer.” The quote comes from The Myth of Sisyphus. Sisyphus is condemned by the gods to spend eternity pushing a boulder up a mountain, only to have it roll back down to be pushed up again. Sisyphus is alone in his agony, endlessly struggling, continually suffering, feverishly living, to achieve absolutely nothing. Sounds like the perfect vehicle for an existentialist like Camus.
But, surprsingly, even Camus has that Forsterian optimistic streak – an “invicible summer”. Camus ends his story, “We must imagine Sisyphus happy.” I like that. Even though, it might be difficult to connect the “prose in us with the passion” it doesn’t necessarily need to be an awful journey.