Wednesday, June 23, 2010

E. M. Forster – ‘The Eternal Moment and Other Stories’

The second of Forster’s two short story collections, published in 1928 but written before 1914 and, taken together with The Celestial Omnibus, it represents ‘all that I am likely to accomplish in a particular line’. It is a pretty squiggly line, veering from the home turf of anguished rich travellers (‘The Eternal Moment’), to more fantastical, metaphysical territory. ‘Co-ordination’ imagines Napoleon and Beethoven in heaven, measuring their glory in terms of how often people still perform the works of one and mention the achievements of the other; quality and interest are ignored, and they get excited unnecessarily about the activities of a school with a Napoleon themed term during which child after child plays parts of the Eroica symphony badly on piano. ‘The Story of the Siren’ has men and women driven mad by beholding an underwater siren, or at least driven to a state of mind in which they can only relate to other people who have experienced the same thing. ‘Mr Andrews’ considers the ascent of a Christian and a Moslem to heaven. ‘The Point of It’ is an exercise in snobbery directed towards the middlebrow, or else a robust defence of taste in the face of ageing, and contains this bleak but halfway convincing prognosis:
By different paths they had come to Hell and Micky now saw that what the bustle of life conceals: that the years are bound either to liquefy a man or to stiffen him, and that Love and Truth, who seem to contend for our souls like angels, hold each the seeds of our decay. (p. 52)
But the real interest in this book is in the first story, which is particularly far even from the line established in The Celestial Omnibus. ‘The Machine Stops’ is science fiction. The earlier book satirises modernity’s obsession with advancement and activity, which feels like an internet theme to a modern reader. ‘The Machine Stops’ goes much further, predicting the rot of the attention span down to about ten minutes (the maximum length of a YouTube clip), the total loss of primary sources from the education system, the loss of geography as a meaningful concept (hello broadband), and the fractured discourse of instant messaging / tweeting / texting. People live in stacked hexagonal boxes beneath the earth’s surface, and all of their physical and conversational wants are supplied in situ. The messaging system is based on tubes and doesn’t seem to be electronic, but its functionality is identical to much of today’s communication technology: many conversations are held at once, there is a constant scramble to be first with a new idea (with the emphasis on ‘first’ rather than ‘idea’), and lectures are no longer something to be attended and absorbed, rather they are delivered to the home and last, as I say, a mere ten minutes. People leave their hexagonal boxes so rarely that they can’t remember how to interact with others when they encounter them face to face. Vashti, the central character, has a ‘horror of direct experience’ (p. 11). The whole of this civilisation is controlled by the machine of the story’s title, and the machine’s manual is the only book left over ‘from the age of litter’ (p. 7). Artefacts are a thing of the past – so digital copies, too, are anticipated. There is no indication that any force more evil than a drive towards economical performance is at work behind this, but the results are deadly:
Man must be adapted to his surroundings, must he not? In the dawn of the world our weakly must be exposed on Mount Taygetus, in its twilight our strong will suffer euthanasia, that the Machine may progress, that the Machine may progress, that the Machine may progress eternally. (p. 17)
Because of the confined living circumstances, physical strength is now a disadvantage, and in childhood, ‘all who promised undue strength were destroyed’. It’s an anti-target message, and an anti-technology message. If things become too easy, they cease to be worth doing at all.

A few more quotes:
And of course she had studied the civilisation that had immediately preceded her own – the civilisation that had mistaken the functions of the system, and had used it for bringing people to things, instead of for bringing things to people. (p. 9)

Night and day, wind and storm, tide and earthquake, impeded man no longer. He had harnessed Leviathan. All the old literature, with its praise of Nature, and its fear of Nature, rang false as the prattle of a child. (p. 10-11)

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