Saturday, January 4, 2014

Howard's End #4: The Wisdom of Solomon and Estuaries, and Persistent Questions of Home

So already, the battered cover of my copy of Howard's End says it all. This blog post has been a long time coming. In terms of the intentional yet still haphazard process I've gone through to understand why this novel enthralls me, I feel as if I have been keeping company with T.S. Eliot's three kings in "Journey of the Magi":

      A hard time we had of it.
      At the end we preferred to travel all night,
      Sleeping in snatches,            
      With the voices singing in our ears, saying 
      That this was all folly.

It's very early on Saturday morning -- still dark -- and the voice on the radio has just reported that it's three degrees outside.  I've been awake for a while thinking about this blog post: fears of folly for sure, but then a moment of self-recognition at least -- folly still perhaps, but self-recognition.  So, as the last line of Louise Erdrich's Love Medicine says, "there . . . [is] nothing to do but cross the water and bring her home." 

But I warn you. This is going to be one long, rambling blog post!

Through my window, as if to encourage me, the pale apricot of dawn has now appeared.  As I struggled yesterday, I had the insightful, heartfelt blog post my student Solomon published on December 10 to inspire me.  Yesterday, I still feared that my over-identification with Margaret -- actual and sometimes aspired to -- was impeding my ability to get to the heart of this novel, was making it "impossible to say just what I mean!"* Today, I understand that my identification with Margaret -- not my over-identification with her -- must be essential to the meaning that I ultimately make and convey. 

Solomon's discussion of the "our own obtuseness" was what drew me in and began to "unmire" me:

The idea of connection exists throughout the novel. However, it is an abstract form of connection, a form that begs for a deep understanding of, and link to, the clarity and wisdom within us all. It is our obtuseness which blinds us to that wisdom. Until we connect, we are all Margaret's charity cases, EM Forster's charity cases, the charity cases of those who see the stain of obtuseness that abstracts our view. Howard's End is beautiful because it viciously swipes at the stain that so easily distracts us to what lies before us.**
Solomon's blog helped me to understand that in viewing my identification with Margaret as a source of "obtuseness" and seeking to set it aside, I was, ironically, bidding myself not to connect.  Furthermore, even as tried to disconnect, I couldn't: I kept noticing more and more aspects of Margaret's sensibilities that the movie version of the novel did not and could not convey fully, and my sense of connection to Margaret only grew.

It's fully morning now; blue skies with some clouds edging in from the west.  If you could you extend your line of vision from my dining room window (which happens to be in an old factory building that's been converted into condominiums) beyond the far housetop at the right-hand edge of this photo, you would soon see Black's Creek and, beyond it, the southerly end of Wollaston Beach.  This fact isn't merely incidental.  You'll see.

Right after I started my blog in late June, I was struck by a passage in Chimimanda Adichie's Americanah:  Adichie's main character's "blog was doing well, . . .  and yet there was cement in her soul.  It had been there for a while, an early morning disease of fatigue, a bleakness and borderlessness . . . that over the months melded into a piercing homesickness."  The whole issue of where one is at home, feels at home, lives without "cement in her soul" was also on my mind:  my approaching retirement, which signaled less time in Cambridge and more time in Quincy, raised questions about how much Quincy did and could feel like home to me and what "home" actually meant to me.  As I wrote in my journal in early July, 

Over the last few months, I've been thinking a great deal about home as place -- trying to understand it, when I've never had the experience of having [any kind of an idealized] spiritual home that belonged only or in part to me.  A few months ago when I first thought that a good answer to the question of "What are you going to do when you retire" was "Drive around and listen to the radio," I also had begun to wonder why I felt so much like myself when I was driving around and listening to the radio.  And I know a lot of other people who feel similarly "at home" when they're between places, caught up in that simulation of rootlessness and possibility -- as if with gasoline and time, they could go anywhere, do anything, be whoever they wanted, become whoever they wanted, start anew.  So is home about possibility? certainty? possibility and certainty? . . . Is home a world or a base camp?. . .  Is home the raison d'ĂȘtre, the destination, the meaning, the purpose? Or is it the stronghold from which . . .  -- fully aware on some level of one's tendencies, weaknesses, strengths, and dreams -- one ventures forth to discover new tendencies, weaknesses, strengths, and dreams?
The only thing I know is that real home cannot exists without real truth. 
Enter Solomon's wisdom about the threat obtuseness poses to our inner, essential clarity and wisdom. And enter Margaret Schlegel, who for most of Howard's End is without a home -- or technically, between homes. For much of the novel, there's much in Margaret's life -- most notably her engagement and marriage -- that might ordinarily contribute to the feelings of support, comfort, and the sense of being in place often associated with home.  But those feelings are practically non-existent for Margaret:  her engagement and marriage are both futile exercises in trying to cultivate Henry's abilities to connect emotionally and spiritually and, in so doing, to create a bond between them that could feel like "home."

It's her first visit to Howard's End that offers Margaret her first temporary liberation from the unrest that has characterized her life since she aligned it with Henry's:
Her evening was pleasant. The sense of flux which had haunted her all the year disappeared for a time. . . . She recaptured the sense of space, which is the basis of all earthly beauty, and, starting from Howard's End, she attempted to realise England. She failed—visions do not come when we try, though they may come through trying. But an unexpected love of the island awoke in her, connecting on this side with the joys of the flesh, on that with the inconceivable. Helen and her father had known this love, . . ., but it had been hidden from Margaret till this afternoon. It had certainly come through the house and old Miss Avery. Through them: the notion of "through" persisted; her mind trembled towards a conclusion which only the unwise have put into words. Then, veering back into warmth, it dwelt on ruddy bricks, flowering plum-trees, and all the tangible joys of spring (204-5).
Interestingly, Margaret's first impulse upon experiencing this liberating peacefulness and "sense of space" is to "realise England."  Because Margaret is a seeker of "visions," home must be not just a haven, but a vantage point, a place to see from, understand from. Shortly thereafter, she reflects that  ". . . [Howard's End] was English, and the wych-elm that she saw from the window was an English tree," observing later in the same paragraph that "House and tree transcended any similes of sex. . . . Yet they kept within limits of the human. Their message was not of eternity, but of hope on this side of the grave. As she stood in the one, gazing at the other, truer relationship had gleamed" (205-6). Howard's End is never mere real estate for Margaret; nor is it merely the potential physical and symbolic locus of familial affection, connection, and tradition. For Margaret, Howard's End embodies the eternity of England, past, present, and future wrapped up in the "now" which she feels instinctively at a later date when she and Helen ascend its stairs on the one night they expect to spend there:

The peace of the country was entering into her. It has no commerce with memory, and little with hope. Least of all is it concerned with the hopes of the next five minutes. It is the peace of the present, which passes understanding. Its murmur came "now," and "now" once more as they trod the gravel, and "now," as the moonlight fell upon their father's sword (315).
"Time past and time future/ What might have been and what has been/ Point to one end, which is always present." Margaret might have thought these lines from T.S. Eliot's "Burnt Norton" said it well.

But the fact of the matter is that Margaret has intimations about the "something moreness" of life long before she lays eyes on Howard's End.  In initially representing to herself the different ways she and Henry think, she explains that

It is impossible to see modern life steadily and see it whole, and she had chosen to see it whole. Mr. Wilcox saw steadily. He never bothered about he mysterious or the private. The Thames might run inland from the sea, the chauffeur might conceal all passion and philosophy beneath his unhealthy skin. They knew their own business and he knew his (161-2).
In contrast, Margaret, cultivating the wholeness of her vision, deliberately contemplates civilization and the land and water that underlie and surround it.  She looks for the forces, natural and economic/political, that shape England, and wonders whether England belongs to the Henries or the Margarets among her citizens.
The water crept over the mud-flats towards the gorse and the blackened heather. Branksea Island lost its immense foreshores, and became a sombre episode of trees. Frome was forced inward towards Dorchester, Stour against Wimborne, Avon towards Salisbury, and over the immense displacement the sun presided, leading it to triumph ere he sank to rest. England was alive, throbbing through all her estuaries, crying for joy through the mouths of all her gulls, and the north wind, with contrary motion, blew stronger against her rising seas. What did it mean? For what end are her fair complexities, her changes of soil, her sinuous coast? Does she belong to those who have moulded her and made her feared by other lands, or to those who have added nothing to her power, but have somehow seen her, seen the whole island at once, lying as a jewel in a silver sea, sailing as a ship of souls, with all the brave world's fleet accompanying her towards eternity? (175-6)
Despite her questions about to which English people England does and should belong, Margaret is certain  of England's bright eternity. Later, married but hardly settled, she offers a less optimistic view of England's future:
Marriage had not saved her from the sense of flux. London was but a foretaste of this nomadic civilisation which is altering human nature so profoundly, and throws upon personal relations a stress greater than they have ever borne before. Under cosmopolitanism, if it comes, we shall receive no help from the earth. Trees and meadows and mountains will only be a spectacle, and the binding force that they once exercised on character must be entrusted to Love alone. May Love be equal to the task! (261).
While the flat, despairing tone of this passage reflects Margaret's concerns with England and civilization present and future, it also reflects Margaret's own transformative -- and therefore necessarily difficult -- moment.  Margaret is making new choices on the basis of a new sense of purpose and urgency:
As for theatres and discussion societies, they attracted her less and less. She began to "miss" new movements, and to spend her spare time re-reading or thinking, rather to the concern of her Chelsea friends. They attributed the change to her marriage, . . .. Yet the main cause lay deeper still; she had outgrown stimulants, and was passing from words to things. . . . Some closing of the gates is inevitable after thirty, if the mind itself is to become a creative power (262).
Even when "closing of the gates" feels absolutely necessary and right, it also feels momentous and definitive -- and therefore disorienting and strange. (That's what my retirement is feeling like right now!) The familiar we've outgrown always offers its own brand of comfort; a little despair is understandable.

But later, out of the "creative power" she's taken care to nurture in herself, Margaret offers a vision -- tendered not with certainty, but with hope --  for an England of the future that halts the frenetic "progress"  of the present civilization through a collective and renewed sense of the interconnectedness of civilization and the earth on which it rests and depends.

"Because a thing is going strong now, it need not go strong for ever," she said. "This craze for motion has only set in during the last hundred years. It may be followed by a civilisation that won't be a movement, because it will rest on the earth. All the signs are against it now, but I can't help hoping, . . ." (339).
This is an adult, mature Margaret who's speaking here, daring to imagine a future that runs counter to currents of the day and risks being dismissed as foolishly optimistic.  She's been thinking of other currents for a while -- the motion of the Thames, the streams and rivers that continuously sculpt and resculpt England's "sinuous coast." Acting fully on her commitment to seeing life wholely, which requires consolidating and cultivating the mind's creative power,  Margaret really is at home, finally -- in herself. When Howard's End, in addition to being her spiritual inheritance, becomes her eventual legal property (through another Wilcox will), the event is anti-climactic yet nonetheless right. Though Howard's End has been more important as a means than as an end all through the novel, we feel vindicated that Mrs. Wilcox's perceptive dream has been realized -- and relieved that Margaret no longer needs to wonder where home will be.

When I first was drawn to and curious about the Howard's End passages about English towns, waterways, and land features and types, I knew nothing about estuaries. So I turned to the internet, from which I learned that
estuaries are coastal water bodies that combine fresh and salt water, often through the tidal movement of water. At the same time, I learned that Black's Creek was also an estuary -- one of four prominent estuaries located along Quincy's twenty-seven-mile coastline, and one of the two most associated with the early history of Massachusetts. While much has changed in Quincy since John Wollaston established a trading post at Black's Creek, the features of the land haven't, according to various sources I've read, for thousands of years.

Curious about Furnace Brook Parkway and why it begins on one side of but doesn't cross Quincy Shore Drive, I learned from Wikipedia that "Furnace Brook . . . begins on the eastern slopes of the Blue Hills and meanders for about four miles from southwest to northeast through the middle of Quincy, ending where it meets the Atlantic estuary known as Blacks Creek near Quincy Bay." I'm not fully sure why all of this means so much to me, but I suspect that I've been needing to build a relationship with Quincy's land and history in order to call Quincy home.  Furthermore, walking near this place on a regular basis connects me to time past, time present, and time future -- and, in so doing, gives me that feeling that, like Margaret, I'm trying, and sometimes succeeding, at seeing life whole.  Why this makes me feel "at home" I don't fully understand, but I think it has something to do with the feeling I have when I'm driving along "the open road" with my radio as my travel companion. 

I know that this sounds a little strange -- to me, too.  But herein again Margaret saves the day: 
"It is only that people are far more different than is pretended. All over the world men and women are worrying because they cannot develop as they are supposed to develop. Here and there they have the matter out, and it comforts them. . . . It is part of the battle against sameness. Differences, eternal differences, planted by God in a single family, so that there may always be colour; sorrow perhaps, but colour in the daily grey" (337-8).
So here's to sorrow and color, and to the chance to be ourselves, even when we baffle ourselves. Again, it's her creativity that empowers Margaret to take this stand against the dominion of the daily grey, which too often makes home -- and almost everything else -- subject to other people's conceptions. Here's also to the right we all have to see life whole, even when there's often so much pressure on us -- not just in the workplace, but in some of our associations with individual people and groups -- to see steadily.

As I finish writing this, it's very early afternoon.  Mid-morning's gray clouds have dissipated, permitting January's unrelenting sunshine to cast the shadows that are common just two weeks beyond the winter solstice. In this same two weeks, I have been struggling to remember another work of literature in which old, interconnected waterways figure prominently. Yesterday, I finally remembered that it's Louise Erdrich's Love Medicine, another novel about literal and figurative homecoming, that ends with passage that refers to venerable waters:
The sun flared. I'd heard that this river was the last of an ancient ocean, miles deep, that once had covered the Dakotas and solved all our problems. It was easy to still imagine us beneath them vast unreasonable waves, but the truth is we live on dry land. I got inside. The morning was clear. A good road led on. So there was nothing to do but cross the water and bring her home. 
It's a car that Lipsha Morrissey is bringing home, but he's also going home with a new sense of who he is, where he fits, and where he belongs.  Margaret Schlegel would agree with him that we do live on dry land. But for many of us, it's a good thing to keep wetlands in view, in our mind's eye at least. And maybe even in the rear view mirror.

So thanks, Solomon; thanks, E.M. and Margaret; and thanks, Black's Creek. And however each of us envisions home, may it be, in all of its potential variation, a place of positive power and authentic connection.

*It always comes back to "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" for me!  
Screen shot of open-road car dashboard from
Forster, E.M. Howard's End. New York: Vintage Books, 1921. Print.  
Wych Elm photo:  Screen shot from
Plum Tree Blossoms photo:  Screen shot from 
Map of Southern England: 
Estuary research:
Furnace Brook Parkway research:  


  1. Ut-oh.

    I didn't know about the journal.

    Well, you are probably cooked. So I am giving up on saving you.

    Go big. I wasted a lot of time (for reasons that are dull and complicated) with little projects.

    So start a novel. Let a subject matter come to you, something that interests you. At first, you will be excited. But that will probably quickly fade as you start to fear all the things you do not feel competent to tell about. Don't worry. Just live with the characters for a while, as you drive around, and they will start to do what they do.

    Pick a routine and write regularly.

    Stop thinking and talking about other novels. It is a distraction.

    Blurt it out.

    Then, probably, put it in a drawer, and write another one.

    It might take a few tries to find your way home.

  2. Hi, Jim --

    I'm already thinking about your advice.

    I've never thought of writing a novel -- never thought I had it in me to create a big story and tell it well.

    But who knows?

    Even if it takes me a while to find my way home, at least I like driving!


    1. Use your own voice. Tell a story that matters.

      The rest is over-thinking.

      Good luck.