Man is the measure. That was my first lesson. Man’s feet are the measure for distance, his hands are the measure for all that is lovable and desirable and strong. Then I went further: it was then that I called to you for the first time, and you would not come.
-E.M. Forster, The Machine Stops (44) from The Eternal Moment
My college library is so large sometimes I just wander around to see what falls into my hand. That is how I came to read E.M. Forster’s collection of short stories, The Eternal Moment. With a title like that I could hardly resist. Even though the eponymous story was the last in the book, I read it first.
She was unaccustomed to that mood, which is termed depressed, but which certainly gives visions of wider, if grayer, horizons. (211)
The story is of Miss Raby, an English writer returning to the Italian scene of her first love. A love that she rejected, with some regret, and yet a love that made her literary career and gave her life a sort of meaning.
Miss Raby had been on the point of a great dramatic confession, of a touching appeal for forgiveness. Her words were ready; her words always were ready. (217)
Typical, beautiful Forster writing. It’s a lovely story. So lovely, in fact, I decided to start the book from the beginning. The first story was The Machine Stops. I was completely unprepared for this futuristic tale. I have read more than a few books written by Forster, but nothing has been anything like this. A world in which people are self-isolated in rooms in which a machine provides everything: food, books, monitors to view other people, and lectures of information for the edification of each individual. Everything at one’s finger tips. Literally.
Men seldom moved their bodies: all unrest was concentrated in the soul. (28)
It’s a world in which all meaning and importance has been placed in the domain of the intellect. And it’s unpleasant. It centers around a mother whose son, Kuno (whom she had nothing to do with raising, because in the future that would be vulgar) suddenly contacts her. He wishes, and needs, to have physical contact with her after daring to defy the machine and go outside, risking “homelessness.” Finally she relents and makes the journey to his side of the world which is devoid of any actual geographical meaning thanks to the wonders of the machine, but who needs actual meaning when you have virtual meaning? The machine explains all, through constant lectures of fifth or tenth hand reports, which are preferable of course, to first hand accounts.
“Here I am. I have had the most terrible journey and greatly retarded the development of my soul.” (40)
I just love Forster. He really has a wicked sense of humor- and mixed with his utter English uptightness, well, it warms my soul.
Cannot you see, cannot all your lectures see, that it is we who are dying, and that down here the only thing that really lives is the machine? (55)
It’s a touching tale. But that it is written by the same man who wrote Room With a View, and Howard’s End, to name a few…I couldn’t resist the urge to turn the cloth bound book over in hands simply to verify that I wasn’t reading another author. What a delight to read something so different from him. It’s not the best story in the world, but it is moving in that “the machine,” as Forster wished us to understand it, with frightening foretelling, is the same as it ever was- a threat to our humanity. I suppose it makes sense that Forster, a man responsible for myriad of emotionally and physically corseted characters, most deeply understood that our humanity rests on touch: on human contact.