Below is one of my favourite passages from my favourite book; Howard’s End by EM Forster. It’s about London, but could be describing any city in today’s urban world. In this post, I’d like to just go through it and express in writing what these words mean for me. But first, have a read:
Certainly London fascinates. One visualizes it as a tract of quivering grey, intelligent without purpose, and excitable without love; as a spirit that has altered before it can be chronicled; as a heart that certainly beats, but with no pulsation of humanity. It lies beyond everything: Nature, with all her cruelty, comes nearer to us than do these crowds of men. A friend explains himself: the earth is explicable – from her we came, and we must return to her. But who can explain Westminster Bridge Road or Liverpool Street in the morning – the city inhaling – or the same thoroughfares in the evening – the city exhaling her exhausted air? We reach in desperation beyond the fog, beyond the very stars, the voids of the universe are ransacked to justify the monster, and stamp it with a human face.
I find Forster’s perception in this extract astounding. We see this from the outset; London is a ‘tract of quivering grey’. The use of ‘grey’ outlines how he sees the city as not one thing nor another; not black and white but the dreary indecision of all the shades in-between. This is highlighted further by its adjective ‘quivering’; not even in its greyness can London rest contented, but constantly shifts between varying degrees of doubt.
This is followed by the words, ‘intelligent without purpose, and excitable without love’. Here, there’s an image in my mind of a crowded street, of hundreds of people connected only by their physical proximity. Each individual has an intelligent purpose, yet collectively the ‘purpose’ falls away, cancelled out, leaving only a vague, idle, intelligence. Similarly, one may feel a collective excitement gained through this crowd, but without a more lasting communication and affinity, there’s no ‘love’. In a continual state of flux, the passers by on a street do not have time to stop and understand each other enough for ‘love’.
Rest assured, though, that the crowd has life. The street, with each individual footfall, has a heart that ‘certainly beats’. But with nothing more than a constant drumming, where is the ‘pulsation of humanity’? The beat is alive, but it’s not human. The pond is so big, and each fish so small, that any individual thought and expression is crowded out by the masses.
London in the morning, ‘inhaling’ with potential; the potential of thousands of mental checklists, tasks to be accomplished, things to do and places to be. London in the evening; tasks completed, ‘exhaling her exhausted air’. Collective potential at eight AM; collective exhaustion ten hours later.
For Forster, it was a relatively new phenomenon. One hundred years ago, Britain was finally seeing the fruits of decades of industrialisation; a complete shift of a population’s equilibrium from the intimate village or small town, to London; one of the world’s first vast, impersonal and yet magnetically alluring city. For Edwardian society, London held employment and income, the best chance to better oneself, to become more than a farm labourer.
To be in constant contact with individuals we do not know, we do not love, we do not even care about; to go about our daily lives brushing past thousands of intelligent minds without a second thought has become the norm in the twenty first century. Today, we have done it; reached ‘beyond the very stars’ to come to terms with our insignificance. We are past the stage of having to ‘justify’ this move from personal to impersonal. Furthermore, what seemed impersonal one hundred years ago is now as humane to us as what seemed personal. We have successfully ‘stamped [the monster] with a human face’.
What do you think? Please ‘like’ and comment your opinion (feel free to disagree with my interpretation or the message of the passage) – it only takes 30 seconds and makes my day.