October 25, 2018KR BlogBlogLiteratureReadingWriting

E.M. Forster on Fantasy and Prophecy

There is a strange distinction made in the later chapters of E.M. Forster’s Aspects of the Novel, a collection of lectures the author gave at Cambridge in 1927. I’ve already discussed the more famous of these lectures, Forster’s distinction between flat and round characters, today a staple of creative writing classes. But the true culmination of Forster’s lessons are the book’s later chapters, on what he terms “Fantasy” and “Prophecy.” These are nebulous and hard to understand concepts, and Forster does a poor job of defining them, but they do seem to be essential in understanding his vision of fiction.

Forster introduces the distinction by emphasizing that a novel is more than just character, plot, and setting:

There is more in the novel than time or people or logic or any of their derivatives, more even than Fate. And by “more” I do not mean something that excludes these aspects nor something that includes them, embraces them. I mean something that cuts across them like a bar of light, that is intimately connected with them at one place and patiently illumines all their problems, and at another place shoots over or through them as if they did not exist. We shall I’ve that bar of light two names, fantasy and prophecy.

This passage gives us a vague sense of what he means—fantasy and prophecy are not aspects of a novel equivalent to character or plot but rather elements that overlie these aspects, ways of understanding a novel conceptually. Forster goes on to say that there is a “fantastic-prophetical axis” and that a novel generally falls somewhere on the axis (Forster does note that there are some novels that are neither fantastic nor prophetic and are instead entirely about their characters, plots, and settings). Tristram Shandy he says is essentially a fantastic work, whereas Moby Dick is a prophetic one. George Meredith (the kind of writer who Forster analyzes often but who today no one except English graduate students focused on the nineteenth century actually read) is more fantastic, while Charlotte Bronte more prophetic. It’s still not entirely clearly exactly what he means by the two words, but the examples do start to give us a sense.

Forster then makes a further distinction (“Let us now distinguish between fantasy and prophecy,” he declares) in a passage that is beautifully written, though not much clearer:

They are alike in having gods, and unlike in the gods they have. There is in both the sense of mythology which differentiates them from other aspects of our subject. An invocation is again possible, therefore on behalf of fantasy let us now invoke all beings who inhabit the lower air, the shallow water, and the smaller hills, all Fauns and Dryads and slips of the memory, all verbal coincidences, Pans and puns, all that is medieval this side of the grave. When we come to prophecy, we shall utter no invocation, but it will have been to whatever transcends our abilities, even when it is human passion that transcends them to the deities of India, Greece, Scandinavia and Judaea, to all that is medieval beyond the grave and to Lucifer son of the morning. By their mythologies we shall distinguish these two sorts of novels.

Still, we do get a sense of what he means, the kinds of novels that would be fantastic versus the kind that would be prophetic. Tristram Shandy vs Moby Dick is the example he gives, but we could easily think of more contemporary contrasts. Gravity’s Rainbow vs White Noise, perhaps, or White Teeth vs Atonement. It’s a matter of tone, but also much more than tone—the way each novel relates to its idea of the divine, to the larger forces that lie beyond the human world and how humans interact with them. Forster seems to be arguing that the best novels have some relationship with these larger forces are not simply stories of character and plot.

Forster then proceeds to analyze fantasy specifically. In a fantastic novel, he argues, “the stuff of daily life will be tugged and strained in various directions, the earth will be given little tilts mischievous or pensive, spot lights will fall on objects that have no reason to anticipate or welcome them, and tragedy herself, though not excluded, will have a fortuitous air as if a word would disarm her.” He emphasizes that such novels don’t have to be explicitly supernatural—Tristram Shandy, he notes, is essentially realistic, “yet a thousand incidents suggest that it is not far off.” Thus, the larger forces in a fantastic novel are mysterious, influencing the narrative in subtle ways but not explicitly revealing themselves—the governmental and corporate powers in Gravity’s Rainbow, for example, or the idea of history in White Teeth, both essential in guiding the characters, but never directly confronted.

Prophecy, by contrast, is “an accent in the novelist’s voice” and is interested in “the universe, or something universal.” Forster emphasizes how the tone of prophecy is different, how prophetic novelists “sing” and how “the strangeness of song arising in the halls of fiction is bound to give us a shock.”

Prophecy—in our sense—is a tone of voice. It may imply any of the faiths that have haunted humanity—Christianity, Buddhism, dualism, Satanism, or the mere raising of human love and hatred to such a power that their normal receptacles no longer contain them.

He goes on to add that prophecy demands from its readers humility and the suspension of the sense of humor, and then gives several examples, from Dostoyevsky to Melville, of novelists who’ve achieved a prophetic tone. “It is unlike fantasy,” Forster says, “because its face is towards unity, whereas fantasy glances about.” To put it another way, the larger forces in prophetic novels, fate, the universe, human nature, whatever, are often directly confronted by the characters—guilt and sin in Atonement or death in White Noise. Prophetic novels, thus, achieve their power through a kind of directness.

Ultimately, it must be asked: what is the point of such a distinction? Why is it even relevant? It seems as though Forster had a vague sense of two different kinds of novels, with different tones and different attitudes towards the divine, and then tried to create some kind of essential distinction which didn’t really stick, given that modern readers don’t exactly classify novels on his “fantastic-prophetic axis.” It may be fun to argue about whether Gravity’s Rainbow is actually prophetic and White Noise fantastic, or whether every novel really has a bit of both. But can the distinction actually help us with our writing, as Forster intended to do with his lectures?

I think, ultimately, making any such disinfection is useful as a way of seeing familiar literature in a different light. In Mathias Énard’s 2015 novel Compass (winner of the Prix Goncourt), the narrator in one of his monologue rants makes an amusing distinction between two types of novelists, the “tubercular” (which he defines as “the public, the social”) and the “syphilitic” (which he defines as “the private, the shameful”), as opposed to the conventional Apollonian vs Dionysian distinction:

Rimbaud: tubercular. Nerval: syphilitic. Van Gogh? Syphilitic. Gaugin? Tubercular…Goethe? A great tubercular, of course! Michelangelo? Terribly tubercular. Brahms? Tubercular. Proust? Syphilitic. Picasso? Tubercular. Hesse? Became tubercular after syphilitic beginnings.

It’s meant to be farcical, of course, but it does reveal something fundamentally true about all of these authors: we read that and we think “of course!” In a similar way, the fantasy/prophecy distinction can reveal something interesting and possibly essential about these different novels. In our secular, atheistic world, we rarely think of fiction in terms of its relationship with the divine, and so it’s interesting to consider it, to ask ourselves how we conceive of our characters as they relate to larger forces. Are these larger forces “Fauns and Dryads” and “all that is medieval this side of the grave,” influencing our world in subtle, mysterious ways? Or are they grander and more transcendent, “all that is medieval beyond the grave,” something universal that our characters must confront?