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Closet Fantasies and the Future of Desire in E. M. Forster's "The Machine Stops"

From: English Literature in Transition, 1880-1920
Volume 53, Number 1, 2010
pp. 54-74 | 10.2487/elt.53.1(2010)0052

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But the body is deeper than the soul and its secrets inscrutable.

—E. M. Forster, Maurice

In her seminal Epistemology of the Closet (1990), Eve Sedgwick situated fiction written around the end of the nineteenth century in the broader context of the "epistemological crisis" ushered in by the challenge of finding a valid "homo/heterosexual definition" that regulates the fears and anxieties—to say nothing of the desires—surrounding the issue of same-sex love. According to Sedgwick, male writers were conventionally caught in an epistemological "double bind" tempting them to explore in their writing residues of supposedly embarrassing material they either could not or did not wish to transform aesthetically—material surfacing in a number of widely taught fin-de-siècle texts such as Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Gray, Henry James's "The Beast in the Jungle," or E. M. Forster's posthumously published Maurice. Literary critics, in the past, were frequently reluctant to take into account this material, propelled by an understandable desire to protect the writers from sexualist or homophobic misreadings in a repressive climate.

In the case of Forster, this issue of critically and plausibly approaching a homosexual writer's work has been reinforced by the fact that his relation to the closet has never been clarified. What may or may not count as relevant in the context of a closet-oriented reading is rendered problematic by Forster's intriguingly evasive narrative style which challenges the reader's expectation on a perfectly routine basis. Moreover, "closetedness" concerns above all a performative aspect, initiated and sustained by the speech act of a meaningful silence; as such it is positively built around the expectations and the decoding strategies of a perceptive reader aware of the writer's assumptions and aesthetic strategies. As Michel Foucault has pointed out in this context:

Silence itself—the things one declines to say, or is forbidden to name, the discretion that is required between the different speakers—is less the absolute limit of discourse, the other side from which it is separated by a strict boundary, than an element that functions alongside the things said, with them and in relation to them within over-all strategies. There is no binary division to be made between what one says and what one does not say; we must try to determine the different ways of not saying such things…. There is not one but many silences, and they are an integral part of the strategies that underlie and permeate discourses.

Forster's relations to the closet and thus to the approved techniques of silence and implicitness have the potential for being peculiarly revealing about speech acts in modernist writing more generally. His fictional works all seem to play with their readers' ignorance, circling as they do around one or a whole series of unspoken or unspeakable desires and secrets. Their frequently being remarkably silent about a character's sexual experience while simultaneously highlighting his behaviour as somehow special, singular or even outrageous is their most significant feature; they are in every respect built around a "speech act of silence" accruing distinctiveness in relation to the discourses that surround and differentially constitute it—involving even the reader who may highlight certain auspicious issues of the text that are, possibly, mere projections imposed upon a multifarious and open-ended literary texture mobilizing the flow of desires, meanings and identifications. A "homosexual subtext" in any of Forster's fictional writings may thus no longer be denied, nor could it ever be fully substantiated. Forster's "queer" procedures of concealment and disclosure shape symbolism, characters, plot, and reader relations in his texts and frequently show how a disavowed (homosexual) secret may structure or direct the narrative situation.

In this article we read Forster's extraordinary short narrative "The Machine Stops" (1909) as a closet fantasy in this sense, a text allegorically dramatizing the problem of engaging a literary coming-out while at the same time denying the presence or feasibility of such an act of public identification. Cloaking a tale of sexual transgression in the familiar shape of a future dystopia allows Forster to draw upon issues otherwise unutterable in Edwardian society and to work against...


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