“If my individual life is to be enclosed within the huge corrupt lie of society to-day, purity and the dirty little secret, then it is worth not much to me,” D.H. Lawrence wrote in 1929 against the censorship of Lady Chatterley’s Lover. “Freedom is a very great reality. But it means, above all things, freedom from lies” (49). An admirer of Lawrence, E.M. Forster wrote his novel Maurice between 1913 and 1914, with some minor revisions afterward, but it remained unpublished, and virtually unknown, therefore effectively censored, until its publication in 1971.
Maurice Hall, the protagonist, emerges into male sexual being, yet he feels a deep longing for his male comrades, which leaves him confused about these innermost feelings for his own sex. And so, through queer friendship and heartache, we see Maurice claim possession of his body against tradition and prejudice. In De Profundis, Oscar Wilde, so much a gay rebel himself, declares: “To reject one’s own experiences is to arrest one’s own development. To deny one’s own experiences is to put a lie into the lips of one’s own life” (60). To love someone of one’s own sex is to live in resistance to the doctrine of compulsory heterosexuality that haunts all sexual and social relations and endeavors to colonize all bodies of rebellious thought.
Queer friendship, although at times endangered, eroded, and eradicated by the straight lie, remains a constant pulse in Forster’s novel. In regard to homosocial relations between men, even nonsexual contact carries with it the potential of exposing queerness and therefore potentially inducing homosexual panic. With both the sexual and nonsexual being collapsed into each other, as if the literal act of intercourse does not matter much at all, perhaps homosexuality, instead of simply being a sexual act in itself, also involves a reorientation of one’s positioning in the surrounding political economy of (hetero)sexual desire. One wars against the imposed, predestined sex roles, determining love for oneself beyond the limitation of convention.
Speaking to this idea, Michel Foucault writes that gayness (i.e., homosexuality) presents, in its potential, a pathway to friendship, love, and happiness among men that disrupts the policing and regulation of human sexual desire. “To imagine a sexual act that doesn’t conform to law or nature is not what disturbs people,” he wrote. “But that individuals are beginning to love one another—there’s the problem” (Foucault, “Friendship as a Way of Life” 136-137). Friendship and love between men, such as that between Maurice and Scudder (Alec), undermines the heterosexual social order in the potential to create new forms of relating between and among men across society.
Considered a “masculine virtue,” self-control, or what the ancient Greeks once called sophrosyne, encouraged the denial of men’s selves in favor of an impassionate, temperate image that pleased, such as that of the ideal husband later seen in the nineteenth century (Carson 126). Forster even likens Maurice to the boy’s father, “who had passed in the procession twenty-five years before, vanished into public school, married, begotten a son and two daughters, and recently died of pneumonia” (11). Later in the novel, we discover that, like Maurice, his father preferred men to women.
Based on this earlier description, Forster exposes the dullness of conventionality. A typical life for a male following the conventions of his expected sexual and economic role could be summarized as follows: A boy plays with others boys, innocent in his childhood, not too different even from his female counterparts, although socialized as if boy and girl exist in two entirely separate species. Then, this boy grows into adolescence where his sex instinct ignites, stirring the passions within him. Prior to puberty, we must remember, years of socialization enshrine his sex, that is, his maleness, as central to his social existence. Entering into manhood, he experiences and explores his desires, except he finds them, whatever they may be, channeled not biologically but socially toward the female sex only in the exclusivity of the monogamous heterosexual marital relation. Despite his well-suppressed, innermost longings which contradict his socially prescribed roles as husband and father, he must reproduce, if possible, fulfill his place in the existing workforce, use his economic resources to sustain his wife and children, and then die.
Of lies in relation to male sexual being, feminist theorist bell hooks writes, “Lying about sexuality is an accepted part of patriarchal masculinity” (79). For men to exist as men, they must feed upon lies, fit into their sexual roles, lie and pretend if they must do so, and remain imprisoned within themselves, thoroughly distorted from the exterior to the interior. Desiring a “cure” for his homosexuality, Maurice visits a hypnotist named Mr. Lasker Jones who, after failed attempts, exposes English social expectations as being against human nature: “England has always been disinclined to accept human nature” (Forster 211). This disinclination reveals the unnaturalness and abnormality evident in compelling men and women to be heterosexual against their wills.
“England has always been disinclined to accept human nature.”
We see the havoc such attempts at “straightening” cause as Maurice wanders, an outlaw to the “beautiful conventions,” with “the wrong words on his lips and the wrong desires in his heart, and his arms full of air” (Forster 165). In 1914, the few above insights about the farce of heterosexuality alone—just a few sentences questioning heterosexuality and arguing in favor of truths over lies—would have been enough to ruin Forster’s career as a writer and, if not lead to his imprisonment, result in ostracization and torment.
And Forster even provides Clive as an example of the man possessing what he perceives as the masculine virtue of sophrosyne, practicing it every day as Clive somehow can make his passion into something abstract and intangible. In describing his conversion from homosexual to heterosexual, what he calls a change in him “merely physical,” Clive brushes away his inner pain: “The love of women would rise as certainly as the sun, scorching up immaturity and ushering the full human day, and even in his pain he knew this” (Forster 130). Clive describes the love of women as a ray of light that must penetrate him, thereby dominating him, as if he fantasizes about himself as the passive receiver of love. What Clive knows of passion, however, he knows because of the love between Maurice and himself, planted and nurtured in their queer friendship, not grown from the tradition and prejudice of heterosexuality. Clive reflects upon his relationship with Maurice, seeing it as a stepping stone which “lifted him out of aestheticism into the sun and wind of love. But for Maurice he would never have developed into being worthy of Anne” (Forster 163). Clive transitions from liking Maurice to liking Maurice’s sister Ada (who looks like Maurice) to liking Anne, requiring a transition each time in his attempt to reach his idealized masculine self, uninhibited by what he perceives as abnormal desires for other men.
We also see the sun appear in relation to looming threats posed to the mask of heterosexual masculinity, such as when Maurice faints after playing cricket upon seeing Scudder (Alec) with his shirt open at the throat. While growing violently sick, Maurice expresses his distaste for the constraints of convention and how it presses upon him: “‘Nothing’s the same for anyone. That’s why life’s this Hell, if you do a thing you’re damned, and if you don’t you’re damned—,’ he paused, and continued. ‘Sun’s too hot—should like a little ice’” (Forster 203). Whether Maurice chooses heterosexuality or homosexuality, he finds himself imperiled. Here, Maurice panics in his homosexual desire for Scudder (Alec), a man of lower class and lesser social status. Desiring a little ice, perhaps, indicates a felt need for separation, even if brief, from the trigger of his peril, a quarantining of his otherwise tainted masculine self from what could be perceived as the exposure of his hidden queerness.
A gender conforming male enters homosexual panic when he experiences peril or terror toward another male, typically a gender nonconforming male, whom he perceives as a threat to his professed heterosexual masculine gender identity; a male homosocial bond then transitions from safe to unsafe. Violence characterizes this panicked behavior. As Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick writes, an importance of the category “homosexual” does not lie in its “regulatory relation” or to a “nascent or already-constituted minority of homosexual people or desires,” but rather the “structuring definitional leverage over the whole range of male bonds that shape the social constitution” (Between Men 86). In regard to homosexual panic, homophobia offers domination, “not only over a minority population, but over the bonds that structure all social form” (Sedgwick, Between Men 87). Here, Sedgwick introduces the distinction between minoritizing and universalizing discourses, elaborated on in Epistemology of the Closet. She adds that, to be sexed or gendered, involves the overlap of “a universalizing discourse of acts or bonds and at the same time a minoritizing discourse of kinds of persons” (Epistemology of the Closet 51). As Foucault once observed, “a real subjection is born mechanically from a fictitious relation,” for “homogeneous effects of power” (Discipline and Punish 202). Power remains diffuse, split across not only the minority population, but also the entire population, thus effectively policing and regulating the shape of bonds between men and women and therefore exerting control upon the masses in regard to sex roles and gendered expectations for the sexes.
Of homosexual panic, Sedgwick writes, “Homosexual panic is not only endemic to at any rate middle-class, Anglo-American men (presumably excluding some homosexuals), but a mainspring of their treatment of politics and power—not least, of course, in relation to women” (Between Men 201). As we saw with Maurice’s reaction to Scudder’s open shirt, during which the sun was too hot, any amount of tension exerted upon a man can imperil his masculine gender identity and cause him to respond with aggression and violence in defense of his sense of self. After Clive has seemingly healed from an actual illness, prior to his renunciation of his homosexuality, he faints and cries and says “I’m a fool” after Maurice kisses him (Forster 104). The very touch of Maurice’s lips upon him makes him ill and uneasy.
After Clive confesses his physical change from homosexuality to heterosexuality, he gazes upon Maurice, terror building: “He was looking with growing dismay into the face he had once loved. The horror of masculinity had returned, and he wondered what would happen if Maurice tried to embrace him” (Forster 126). Panic enters Clive’s mind as he stares at Maurice because, although Maurice had not threatened his homosexual masculinity, the idea of Maurice embracing him—especially the act—poses a severe threat to his heterosexual masculinity.
“Physical love means reaction, being panic in essence, and Maurice saw now how natural it was that their primitive abandonment at Penge should have led to peril. They knew too little about each other—and too much. Hence fear. Hence cruelty.”
Maurice and Scudder (Alec) share their bodies with each other at Penge, Clive’s own house, and this act, in itself, defies the conventions of gender and class. But the way in which Forster describes the physical love between Maurice and Scudder (Alec) indicates how any intimate physical touch between men can transform into an outward expression of otherwise internalized panic. “Physical love means reaction, being panic in essence, and Maurice saw now how natural it was that their primitive abandonment at Penge should have led to peril,” Forster writes, “They knew too little about each other—and too much. Hence fear. Hence cruelty” (226) (emphasis added). “Panic in essence” defined by fear and cruelty at the other in relation to the self creates the formula for a man alienated from his selfhood because he built his manhood upon the domination of others, not in communion with others. Both Maurice and Scudder (Alec), although homosexual male lovers, remind each other that, indeed, either one could have killed the other in a fit of masculine rage to preserve the integrity of their masculine gender identities.
When Maurice reveals that he has “shared with Alec,” all that he has, including his body, this revelation triggers panic in Clive. Forster’s details regarding Clive’s actions and thoughts indicate deceit in Clive’s feigned self-control about his sexuality: “Clive sprang up with a whimper of disgust. He wanted to smite the monster, and flee, but he was civilized, and wanted it feebly. After all, they were Cambridge men…pillars of society both; he must not show violence” (243). He springs up, whimpers in disgust, and considers killing his past lover who, in the moment, appears as “the monster.” Clive’s fight-or-flight response, almost driving him to show violence and dirty his hands, indicates the panic Maurice triggers in him. So much for sophrosyne, it would seem.
“He loved men and always had loved them. He longed to embrace them and mingle his being with theirs.”
Told the lie that heterosexuality must be his destiny, Maurice defiantly navigates his life, finding that he cannot quite play his part as a heterosexual male in the male supremacist system which existed before his birth and in which he must live. Earlier in the novel, channeling Wilde, Maurice passionately declares his rejection of lying about his own experiences after having “been fed upon lies”: “He would live straight, not because it mattered to anyone now but for the sake of the game. […] He loved men and always had loved them. He longed to embrace them and mingle his being with theirs” (62). As a middle-class, closeted homosexual male who ultimately falls in love with Clive’s gamekeeper Scudder (Alec), Maurice challenges the existing conventions of not only gender and sexuality but also class. For, as Forster once wrote in his “locked diary”: “Love—and affection too—must be opposed to reason if they are genuine” (7).
This paper, a variation of it at least, perhaps with a few more blemishes than would be desirable on my part, appears in the Spring 2019 Association of College English Teachers of Alabama (ACETA) newsletter The Light.
Carson, Anne. “The Gender of Sound.” Glass, Irony, and God, New York: New Directions Publishing Corporation, 1995, pp. 119-142.
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