by Lisa Mullenneaux
I was recently “fired” by a graduate student who was renting a room in my Manhattan apartment. Disconcerted by the ferocity of this woman’s rejection of our roommate agreement and of me personally—the triggering incident involved covering an air conditioner in her room—I decided to try to understand her mindset. An economics student, she had posted a resume on the university website that showed the perfect profile of someone trained to handle numbers not people. She had worked for a hedge fund, a think tank co-founded by George Soros, and could explain an asset price bubble in several languages. Impressive, but when our numbers didn’t line up, her solution was to bail out and bury the failure.
As I watched our living situation deteriorate, I realized we treated money very differently. She used it generously to get rid of “problems”; I often saw its lack as a problem in itself. E.M. Forster’s novel Howard’s End being, for me, the ultimate study of art vs. commerce, I turned to its pages for more insight—and not for the first time because the novel describes the two conflicting halves of my own family, capitalists and bohemians. My decision to teach and write, as opposed to more lucrative careers, was based on my selfish desire to avoid boredom at all costs. And in many ways it does cost, but I’m getting ahead of Forster’s drama.
For Ruth Wilcox, her family’s home at Howard’s End is her most prized possession; so sure is she that Margaret Schlegel shares her values, that she bequeathes it to her friend on her death bed. But Ruth’s handwritten note is destroyed by her husband, Henry, and their children, who see the property only for its real estate value. Despite their very different priorities, Henry Wilcox and Margaret are attracted to each other and marry. Margaret will eventually inherit Howard’s End when Henry makes a new will, but by then Henry is no longer the ruthless profiteer and seducer of young women. He has survived that most crushing bourgeois humiliation, the scandal of his son’s conviction for murder, a fact all the more damning as his son Charles’ violence was meant to impress his father.
What causes this change in Henry’s character, besides tragedy, is the support of his wife. From Margaret he learns forgiveness, of himself, above all. For she has felt when she first kisses him a rigidity she calls “asceticism” that she hopes to soften. Her sermon is really Forster’s: “Only connect the prose and the passion, and both will be exalted, and human love will be seen at its height. Live in fragments no longer. Only connect, and the beast and the monk, robbed of the isolation that is life to either, will die.”
Margaret could have cut him off much as the formerly ruthless Henry abandoned his young mistress and ignored others less fortunate than he. But she doesn’t, and her love teaches him empathy as it harmonizes the novel’s discordant elements. We make mistakes because we are human, Forster reminds us, but connect the “prose” with the “passion” and we feel whole.
Why do I feel Forster’s message applies to the math geniuses preparing for jobs in finance? Because what they are learning is what moves markets not people. Power and money provide, not just a buffer from the need to “connect,” they replace it with a false sense of invulnerability.
We aren’t born human; we learn to be human, and that’s more easily accomplished if we value empathy. E. M. Forster understood the violence that underlies the profit motive, especially if carried to the extremes we see in today’s world of unequal wealth distribution. In Margaret Schlegel, he created a woman wise enough to compromise, to match her passion to her husband’s prose.
Wonderful essay! Beautifully written and very timely given the world political environment.