“Only connect”… and onward and upward

Thank you to all for your comments about Bel Canto, and recently to Zehra for her thoughtful observations about Gen.

Her words made me think of the epigraph for E. M. Forster’s beautiful novel Howard’s End, the famous directive, “Only connect…”

Perhaps many of you (all of you?) know this novel already… the sentiment is felt by one of the main characters, Margaret Schlegel. It is an expression of her sense — and here follows a highly compressed and necessarily reductive version of that sentiment — that human experience, both private, individual experience and experiences between and among people, is continually compromised by our failure to see equally clearly both the inner world (emotional, psychological, spiritual, moral) and the outer world (which might be characterized as physical, commercial, corporate, etc.)

Our ability to understand ourselves and other people is impeded again and again by our failure to imagine the connections between these disparate (and sometimes warring) parts of ourselves, and between ourselves and others. Yet without “connection,” Margaret Schlegel argues (and presumably Forster, as well), there is neither a complete self nor a complete other. Without connection, there is no shelter, no happiness, no compassion.

I am reminded of something the writer Ian McEwen has said: “Imagining what it is like to be someone other than oneself is at the core of our humanity. It is the essence of compassion, and it is the beginning of morality.”

I do not think this claim for literature’s effect in civilization (which is different from its purpose) is too grand. And opera, like literature, Ann Patchett has said, also possesses “the sheer muscle and magnitude to pull us into another world.”

Thank goodness, I think I mean, for art.

There’s no need for us to close discussion on Bel Canto — feel free, those of you who have not yet chimed in, to do so — but as we have moved from June to July, I hope you will now turn to Small Island, which I think you will find as fulfilling and provocative as Bel Canto.

The days at Sweet Briar are very warm now. Thunderstorms hover over the Piedmont, as they do this time of year, and sometimes they blaze through campus. The physical plant crews have been busy mowing the grass and clearing up trees and branches felled by high winds. The old oak in the dell below the Chapel is looking very battleworn. They’ve done a first mowing on the fields, the opportunistic hawks circling…


One Response to ““Only connect”… and onward and upward”

  1. maggiepatrick says:

    One of my favorite movies is “L’Auberge Espagnol,” a movie about a French student who spends a year studying in Barcelona and living in an apartment with students from 6 or 7 other countries. At the beginning of the movie he says that his story began when he first made the decision to study abroad. By the end of the movie he decides that in fact his story, and even his life, did not truly begin until the end of that year. In his own words, he is “un vrai bordel”– a real mess. He is no longer made up of himself and his experiences, but the combined lives and experiences of his international roommates. He has found the connection you speak of and become more alive and more human for it.

    I found myself thinking of this movie several times while reading Bel Canto and I highly recommend it!

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