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The Humble in 19th- to 21st-Century British Literature and Arts

Isabelle Brasme
Jean-Michel Ganteau
Christine Reynier

Part Six. The British Humble Abroad

‘The British Humble Abroad: Humanism in Practice in E.M. Forster’s First Novel (Where Angels Fear to Tread) and Jonathan Coe’s Latest (Expo 58)’

Laurent Mellet


In both E. M. Forster’s Where Angels Fear to Tread (1905) and Jonathan Coe’s Expo 58 (2013) the humble is a construct that the novelists define and use as a necessary literary and ethical experience. Experiencing one’s humble condition becomes the first stage towards self-consciousness (P. Zaoui) and the main teleological dimension of both modernist and contemporary humanist aesthetics. Literature becomes the place for an ethical (Aristotle), political (P. Ricœur) and humanist (J.-P. Sartre) experience of humbleness.

Texte intégral

  • 1 Jonathan Coe, ‘Jonathan Coe discusses Expo 58,’ online video clip, YouTube YouTube, 29 August 201, (...)

1‘To do what E. M. Forster did in some of his novels: to find out what British people are really like and to send them abroad, to put them in a foreign context and see how they behave.’ This is how Jonathan Coe presented his novel Expo 58 (2013) in an interview for Waterstones.1 Seeing how British subjects ‘behave’ and try both to define and assert themselves abroad is indeed what E. M. Forster was often after, and this from his first novel Where Angels Fear to Tread (1905) onwards. Very often with these two novelists, and more particularly in these two books, the narrative space turns into some sort of ethical laboratory where the writer performs and observes action, behaviour and experience. One of the aesthetic and political ways both Forster and Coe connect this double theme of the British abroad is humbleness: characterising their male anti-heroes as initially humble, having them play parts they cannot comprehend and so having them be mistaken and eventually fail, but then change and ‘improve,’ in Forster’s terms, when abroad, in Italy or Belgium. Humbleness here is neither psychological nor judgemental—it is a literary construct and a tool that the writers use and play with so as to posit that literature is the place for an ethical, political and humanist performance of humbleness. The formal and narrative strategies promoting this humanist agenda are of various kinds: a progressively new writing of the body and the senses, narrative errors and mistakes pointing at some aestheticisation of humbleness and decoys, and the specific roles granted to the narrative voice. They all show some typically contemporary return to Edwardianism and modernism in this ethical and political construction of a humble individual, for whom what is at stake is precisely to capitalise and thrive on humbleness as strength, but only once it has been ethically experienced and literarily performed.

Sending the British Abroad and Revealing Their Humbleness

  • 2 E. M. Forster, Where Angels Fear to Tread (1905; London: Penguin, 2001), 70.
  • 3 See also Miss Abbott’s diagnosis: ‘ “you look on life as a spectacle; you don’t enter it”’ (158).
  • 4 Jonathan Coe, Expo 58 (London: Penguin, 2013) 116.
  • 5 The novel teems with passages pointing at this inability to decide on anything. For example: ‘“I se (...)

2Philip Herriton in Where Angels Fear to Tread and Thomas Foley in Expo 58 are equally modest, transparent, passive, narratively belittled and unable to collide with the world. With Forster, being humble is first being aware of one’s limitations: ‘he would sigh and say: “It is a weak face. I shall never carve a place for myself in the world.”’2 To Miss Abbott he confesses at the end of the novel: ‘Some people are born not to do things. I’m one of them. [. . .] I seem fated to pass through the world without colliding with it or moving it’ (Forster 1905, 134).3 Though Thomas is less aware of his own condition in Expo 58, he thinks the very same words, or almost: ‘There are certain people, Thomas thought, who command attention; and there are others who blend into the background and become invisible.’4 ‘ [N] ot inclined towards antagonism’ (Coe 58), Thomas regularly fails to make any decision, always ‘in a daze of indecision and inertia’ (Coe 181), as most of the time ‘the decision [is] made for him’ (Coe 256).5

3These two humble heroes will be offered the possibility to play a part, thus humbly becoming someone else or, precisely, to play this part without knowing it. ‘You had a role to play in the whole scheme’ (Coe 240), Thomas is told at the end of his adventures at the World’s Fair in Brussels. Yet the role he thought he was playing there was a decoy, as he was being made use (and fun) of to fool a Russian spy, never knowing exactly what was at stake. This narrative trick is at the heart of Coe’s humour and irony in this book, the point being to have the character understand and acknowledge his own humble condition. Three times in Where Angels Fear to Tread does the narrator present Philip as his mother’s puppet, and yet the repetitions already seem to imply some evolution of Philip’s awareness and slow move towards action and autonomy. We first read ‘All his life he had been her puppet’ (Forster 1905, 84), then a first shift in the embedded ‘He might be a puppet’s puppet, but he knew exactly the disposition of the strings’ (Forster 1905, 90), and finally the syntactic exclusion of the word in the concessive ‘He could see it, [. . .], though he was here as a puppet’ (Forster 1905, 91).

  • 6 ‘En son sens étymologique, en effet, discrétion vient du latin discretio qui signifie discernement, (...)

4In his recent book on discretion, La discrétion, ou l’art de disparaître (2013), philosopher Pierre Zaoui argues for specific definitions of discretion in the way it differs from tact, modesty and humility.6 In a limpid passage on Kafka’s approach to humility (Zaoui 70) he writes about the relational dimension of humility, then distinguishes between the violence of humility and what discretion might be:

L’acte de rendre humble, l’humiliation, c’est-à-dire littéralement plaquer la face de l’autre contre terre [. . .], n’est-il pas [. . .] l’acte le plus contraire à la discrétion? Se faire discret, n’est-ce pas, avant tout autre chose, ne pas vouloir être humilié et ne pas vouloir humilier? [. . .] Il y aurait dans la notion d’humilité bien trop de méchanceté spectaculaire pour être prise longtemps au sérieux.
(Zaoui 75, original emphasis)

5It is true that humble Philip and Thomas are often humiliated and belittled, but in these novels the violence of humiliation is not the most striking, rather it is the violence of self-awareness, and before that the violence of the experience abroad and of unexpected interaction with foreign places and events, that assumes most prominence. In both novels such experience abroad is needed for humbleness to be revealed, staged, and asserted.

  • 7 See Laurent Mellet, L’œil et la voix dans les romans de E. M. Forster et leur adaptation cinématogr (...)

6Where Angels Fear to Tread regularly addresses the influence of space and place on characters and events. Mrs Herriton, Philip’s mother, could not be further from the truth, though she often is, when she says about Lilia’s new engagement in Monteriano that ‘The place has nothing to do with it at all’ (Forster 1905, 30). In fact, Lilia’s letter imparting the news is torn to pieces, ‘ [b]ut countless fragments of the letter remain [. . .], disfiguring the tidy ground’ (Forster 1905, 32).7 When Lilia first spots Gino, ‘ [she is] determined to have the man and the place together’ (Forster 1905, 49). In this novel, whether it be in England or Italy, you are where you live, you are the place you inhabit. ‘Surely I and my life must be where I live,’ Miss Abbott thinks (Forster 1905, 77), while Philip does not so much become someone else as he gets back to his real self when in Italy: ‘He was not even an enthusiastic visitor. For he had been in this place always. It was his home.’ (Forster 1905, 109) Similarly in Expo 58, back in Brussels and away from his drab English life, Thomas feels ‘the glow of homecoming’ (Coe 47). Yet drab, modest, humble also, is precisely what his mother wants and likes her surroundings to be: ‘the modest contours of the Surrey hills swelling up in the near distance. This morning was as deathly quiet as only an English Sunday morning could be’ (Coe 15). Places may be equally humble. The gist of Philip’s advice to Lilia when she leaves for Italy is also to challenge the foreign place and interact with it: ‘it is only by going off the track that you get to know the country’ (Forster 1905, 19)—and, we may add, that you get to know yourself. Philip believes ‘that Italy really purifies and ennobles all who visit her’ (Forster 1905, 22). There is room for contradiction though, and one should always beware of too dangerous and indecent an ennobling: ‘I am not blaming you now. But I blame the glamour of Italy’ (Forster 1905, 43), he tells Lilia on his first visit.

  • 8 To improve or develop: ‘And it is this undeveloped heart that is largely responsible for the diffic (...)

7Another influence of the foreign land is to be felt on language, with a notable difference here between Forster and Coe. When overwhelmed by the vision of Gino and his baby in Monteriano, Miss Abbott gives up on her project and we read: ‘ “May I help you to wash him?” she asked humbly’ (Forster 1905, 125). In Expo 58 the vision of the Atomium has the opposite effect on Thomas’s way of expressing himself: ‘“I love it,” said Thomas, leaning out of the window again. “I absolutely, utterly adore it.” The words sounded strange to him as soon as they were uttered. When had he last spoken so extravagantly?’ (Coe 46) The extravagance of the delivery is meant to throw light on the way humbleness is challenged abroad. In Where Angels Fear to Tread the Herriton family sends Lilia abroad not just to get rid of her but so that she can become more decent and a better mother for Irma. The move is radically and of course ironically opposed to the Forsterian trope of the journey abroad, the whole point of which is to improve, as Philip notices (Forster 1905, 24).8 In the Meredithian epigrammatic way Forster practiced so often in his early novels, he writes that ‘our vanity is such that we hold our own characters immutable, and we are slow to acknowledge that they have changed, even for the better’ (Forster 1905, 104). Yet, Philip has greater insight as regards Lilia: ‘He would not have made the concession in England; but here in Italy Lilia, however wilful and silly, was at all events growing to be a human being’ (Forster 1905, 34). Once more Italy progressively allows both the human being and free speech to emerge on the page, and more generally the novels bring forth the influence of place on characters’ voices and interactions. Humbleness is challenged abroad so that it may be turned into some sort of assertiveness. The place therefore does not only reveal humbleness, but also puts it to the test and triggers some humanist evolution.

The Ethics and Politics of Literary Humbleness

8The first, objective definition of the humble is being low in rank or station. The two novels studied here sometimes address this type of humbleness, for instance when Philip is told about Gino’s humble social origins (Forster 1905, 36), or in Expo 58 with Thomas’s limited expectations when back in England: ‘I live very modestly, as befits my status as a humble worker in the newspaper industry’ (Coe 217). But the word appears only when Thomas is back in England precisely, once he has been made ‘aware of his own weaknesses’—the other, subjective form of humbleness is here akin to a construct which is the whole point of fiction for both Forster and Coe. At the end of their respective stories and journeys Philip and Thomas will have discovered how wrong and fooled they have been, and be able not so much to become more active but accept their own limitations and thrive on them. Philip will move from the potential and the programme to action and actualisation, as the last pages of the book indicate, with the promise of a new character, now more in harmony with his desires thanks to his Italian experience. In Expo 58 Thomas will accept his minor yet pivotal role in the course of History. What literature allows for is a narrative space for humbleness to be experienced, performed and eventually asserted—with a view to, as both novels insist on, ‘let [ting] bygones be bygones’ (Forster 1905, 82), since ‘what’s gone is gone,’ as we read regularly in Expo 58. Here may be found another common point between Where Angels Fear to Tread and Expo 58, in the relation they both suggest between humbleness and assertiveness, and more specifically in the necessity to assert humbleness itself so as to come to terms with one’s own restraints.

9In Expo 58 the call for action connects to the political performance of humbleness. ‘Enough of the English modesty’ (Coe 78), one character exclaims. Rather, ‘we must rise to the challenge. We have to move forward. We have to move on.’ (Coe 31)—here is the new, modern definition of Englishness at the outset. When Thomas feels ‘like a king of the universe’ (Coe 76), it is because abroad he thinks he can do something, ‘tak [e] part’ (Coe 79), make history perhaps and have responsibilities, ‘ [a] role to play’ (Coe 13). However merely programmatic those passages may be, what they pinpoint is the possibility or the promise to finally manage to act, make ‘ [e] xcellent choice [s]’ (Coe 93), display a new form of ‘unassuming heroism’ (Coe 158) and feel ‘a certain heroic glow at the thought that he was stepping up to the wicket now that his name had been called, and doing his bit for Queen and country’ (Coe 151). Though bitterly ironic, since he has no awareness whatsoever of the real role he is being led to play in spite of himself, the text will then support him with sentences such as ‘Thomas was not troubled by any traces of doubt as to his next course of action’ (Coe 228).

10Forster sets a similar agenda. After the death of her first husband, ‘Lilia tried to assert herself’ (Forster 1905, 23); after the death of her love for her second husband, ‘She began to see that she must assert herself, but she could not see how’ (Forster 1905, 60). Her own death signals her failure when only trying and beginning to see, and endows Philip with the duty to make it for her—to act and change. This is also what Miss Abbott calls for in him:

‘Oh, what’s the use of your fairmindedness if you never decide for yourself? [. . .] It’s not enough to see clearly; I’m muddle-headed and stupid, [. . .] but I have tried to do what seemed right at the time. [. . .] But when you see what’s right you’re too idle to do it. [. . .] [W] e must intend to accomplish.’ (Forster 1905, 134)

  • 9 Aristote, Éthique à Nicomaque, trans. Richard Bodéüs (Paris: Flammarion, 2004) 100, II 1103a30–1103 (...)
  • 10 Paul Ricœur, Histoire et vérité (1955; Paris: Seuil, 2011) 297.
  • 11 Paul Ricœur, Du texte à l’action. Essais d’herméneutique II (1986; Paris: Seuil, 1998) 444.

11Such emphasis on action implies that the literary event should be triggered by the character (Mellet 2012, 43)—a first aspect of the teleological dimension of the humanist writing at play in which we can hear echoes of Aristotle’s stress on praxis in ethics: ‘En effet, ce qu’on doit apprendre à faire, c’est en le faisant que nous l’apprenons. [. . .] [C]’est donc aussi en exécutant des actes justes que nous devenons justes, des actes tempérants qu’on devient tempérant et des actes courageux qu’on devient courageux.9 We know how this pattern is substantiated in Paul Ricœur’s work. To distinguish between morals and ethics, Ricœur reminds us of the Aristotelian definition of the latter and its emphasis on action and teleology. In Histoire et vérité Ricœur goes further so as to show the connection between such ethics and his own approach to politics: ‘C’est par lebien-vivreque politique et éthique s’impliquent mutuellement.10 He then defines politics as similarly based on intention and action: ‘La spécificité du politique ne peut apparaître que par le moyen de cette téléologie; c’est la spécificité d’une visée, d’une intention. Par le bien politique les hommes poursuivent un bien qu’ils ne sauraient atteindre autrement et ce bien est une partie de la raison et du bonheur ’ (Ricœur 1955, 297). The teleological component of ethics according to Aristotle becomes the gist of politics to Ricœur: ‘Le politique prolonge ici l’éthique en lui donnant une sphère d’exercice.11 The literary performance of humbleness, with a view to claiming and asserting it and thus oneself, becomes a political enactment of ethical necessities. The teleological aim of ethics is here central to the political, humanist project of fiction in action.

Writing and Aestheticising Humbleness

  • 12 See Laurent Mellet, Jonathan Coe. Les politiques de l’intime (Paris: PUPS, 2015) 52.

12This leads us to ponder on the narrative devices used here to politically perform humbleness. Many of the usual stylistic characteristics of both writers seem to take part in this aestheticisation of humbleness. Three of them are probably more salient: body figures, the motif of the decoy, and the narrative role of mistakes.12 Humour, which is always present in Coe’s writing, is also an essential component of this aesthetics, and surprisingly enough no less so in Forster’s first novel. Where Angels Fear to Tread recurrently resorts to the narrative voice’s biting comments, as usual with Forster, but here perhaps with a witty straightforwardness and a comic dimension that the subsequent novels would leave behind. In this comic, ironic and aggressive narrative voice may lie yet another unexpected common ground to both novelists.

13Body figures play a crucial role in Forster’s humanist writing. The novel starts and concludes on the same motif—bodies on a train going away or back home. What happens in-between? What of the bodily experience of one’s humbleness abroad? Lilia’s love at first sight with Gino’s Italian body is equalled by Philip’s fascination for the young man’s physical and animal energy, here with another association between the land and the subject: ‘Philip had seen that face before in Italy a hundred times—seen it and loved it, for it was not merely beautiful, but had the charm which is the rightful heritage of all who are born on that soil’ (Forster 1905, 41). Lilia dies at the end of chapter four, clearly allowing Philip to be reborn at the beginning of chapter five. We thus read: ‘“It’s a beautiful boy!” But she had died in giving birth to him. At the time of Lilia’s death Philip Herriton was just twenty-four years of age’ (Forster 1905, 70). Though this is chapter five already, Forster only then describes Philip’s face and body, implying a transition from one character to the other and the challenge for Philip to come to terms with his body and who he is, just where Lilia failed. In Expo 58 Thomas initially does not know how to strike a balance between his inner feelings and body language: ‘Thomas smiled his thanks, and inclined his head. It was a careful, restrained gesture, and one which gave no indication of the sensations of wild pride and excitement that were coursing through him at the moment’ (Coe 32). Only the gesture is humble here. With Anneke, after many Belgian months, the balance and the honesty are easier, and at some point, ‘it felt unusual—and liberating—to be performing these actions in the nude’ (Coe 226). ‘ [L]iberating,’ ‘performing,’ ‘actions’ and ‘nude’—in this assertion Coe’s text also performs and actualises the humanist agenda of Forster’s novel; and this new acceptance of one’s body and body life, rather than being a shift away from humbleness, precisely signals the acceptance of one’s humbleness, as we shall see.

14Philip and Thomas also share having to forget about their illusions and face a bleaker reality. Fooled into thinking they have real parts to play (in the abduction of Gino’s baby in Forster, as a clever spy in Coe), both end up even more humble than before their adventures abroad. Here is also to be found one of Coe’s recurrent metafictional tricks, which consists in fooling his protagonists yet showing, performing again, that only literature can make them believe—believe they are useful, believe they exist, and believe in themselves sufficiently so as to assert their own humbleness. In Where Angels Fear to Tread Philip has to accept his humble secondary condition as a character, becoming the hero only halfway through the novel after Lilia’s death. This is why the narrative trick of the decoy depends on mistakes and awareness. As every other male hero of Coe’s, Thomas keeps misinterpreting things, never understanding what is at stake, yet slowly getting ‘what a dreadful judge of character he had proved himself to be’ (Coe 222). Finally able to say out loud that he is ‘a very confused individual’ (Coe 223), Thomas will learn how to boast his humbleness, and no longer isolate it between brackets as he does in one of his letters to his wife: ‘Tony—who is (in my humble opinion) rather naive’ (Coe 114).

Humanism and Humbleness in Practice

  • 13 Jean-Paul Sartre, L’Existentialisme est un humanisme (1946; Paris: Gallimard, 2012) 30.

15The connection to the other and the famously Forsterian personal relationships are already at the heart of Where Angels Fear to Tread. ‘Love and understand the Italians, for the people are more marvellous than the land’ (Forster 1905, 19), Philip says to Lilia, who indeed in Monteriano desperately exclaims: ‘But I must know someone!’ (Forster 1905, 53) In ‘Three Countries’ Forster wrote: ‘I do not think anyone is a typical anything. I am a novelist and my business lies with individuals, not with classifications’ (Forster 1905, 8). His well-known belief in individual autonomy through interrelation—‘only connect’—informs a writing that does not first address class or even Italy but individuals. Forster wrote to Trevelyan: ‘The object of the book is the improvement of Philip’ (Forster 1905, 161). Here are the humanist agenda of both Forster’s ethical modernism and Coe’s contemporary fiction, as well as their narrative performance of individual construction, limitations and humbleness. Therefore the pattern does not merely consist in leading the characters to act for and assert themselves, but rather to experience their own setbacks so as to endow them with the literary possibility to claim their weakness. This humanism in narrative practice is not without Sartrian existentialist echoes. As we know, ‘L’homme est non seulement tel qu’il se conçoit, mais tel qu’il se veut, [. . .] l’homme n’est rien d’autre que ce qu’il se fait.’13 Existentialism, as the philosophy of action, demands that the human individual choose and create himself by deciding for himself and acting to become this individual. As Sartre’s title goes, L’Existentialisme est un humanisme, and some teleological dimension could also be found here that underlines the logic behind decision and action, humbleness and identity. With him, decision does not always lead to action, as was the case for Aristotle. In Forster and Coe humanism in practice allows for a performance of humbleness miles away from mere action and commitment.

  • 14 Guillaume Le Blanc, Que faire de notre vulnérabilité? (Montrouge: Bayard, 2011) 26. Translation min (...)
  • 15 Adam Phillips, Trois capacités négatives (Paris: L’Olivier, 2009).
  • 16 Guillaume Le Blanc, L’Insurrection des vies minuscules (Montrouge: Bayard, 2014) 96.

16Humbleness is not just part of initial characterisation. Experienced and challenged abroad, it turns into the object of the quest that has to be tamed and become some strength. Philip eventually understands everything, though ironically unaware of Miss Abbott’s (and probably his own) feelings for Gino. Yet it is Miss Abbott who tells him: ‘You do understand wonderfully. You are the only one of us who has a general view of the muddle’ (Forster 1905, 132). Humbleness is at the core of this conversation, either with Miss Abbott’s antiphrasis (‘“Perhaps I am extreme,” she said humbly.’) or with Philip’s more straightforward—and here is the whole point—self-awareness (‘But I’m not a fine character’ [Forster 1905, 136]). When she tells him she wishes something would happen to him, Philip exclaims: ‘But why? [. . .] Prove to me why I don’t do as I am’ (Forster 1905, 135). Once more, performance and a total acceptance of one’s humbleness are the gist of the novel’s conclusion. In Expo 58 humbleness first defines, but not only defines in fact, the hero: ‘Thomas was a quiet man. That was his distinguishing feature. [. . .] Gentleness and humility were the qualities which first struck people upon meeting him’ (Coe 2). Thematised and used as the subject in the sentence, humility already acts as part of the character’s strength. The ‘interesting’ and ‘glamorous’ part he thinks he will play is no less humble, and again this is what he enjoys: being ‘a player (however small) on the international stage’ (Coe 24). These two novels therefore seem to provide striking examples of what Guillaume Le Blanc calls ‘fictions of weakened individuals’ in Que faire de notre vulnérabilité?: ‘Mais les fictions de l’autonomie, longtemps hyperpuissantes au point de triompher dans les narrations de l’individualisme et du libéralisme sont maintenant mises en cause par des figurations de l’individu fragilisé, dépendant, précaire.’14 As Le Blanc develops and exemplifies in L’Insurrection des vies minuscules, building up on Adam Phillips’s Trois capacités négatives,15 weakness is a strength: ‘suggérer que la faiblesse est un point de vue sur le monde et reste une force.’16 This is equally central to Pierre Zaoui’s definition of discretion: ‘La discrétion a cessé d’être pensée et vécue comme l’attente de son contraire, elle est devenue l’affirmation d’elle-même’ (Zaoui 131).

17We should finally come back to Zaoui’s distinction between the discreet and the humble, as it sheds light on yet another humanist dimension of humbleness in the two novels by Forster and Coe. To Zaoui discretion is political in the way it is a dissensus, in Jacques Rancière’s understanding of the word, and a resistance to visibility: ‘une question de résistance à un nouvel ordre établi: celui qui prétend identifier l’être à l’apparaître et la valeur à la visibilité [. . .]. D’où l’enjeu politique et actuel de la discrétion: apprendre à quitter l’ordre de la monstration de soi’ (Zaoui 16). Of course the basics of the Forsterian style spring to mind here. The humanism at play becomes more specific: ‘la discrétion est l’expérience de la jouissance paradoxale de se retirer soi-même, de se faire invisible, de disparaître momentanément pour s’abandonner à l’apparition de l’autre, de cesser pour un instant d’être soi’ (Zaoui 53). Performing and asserting one’s humbleness does not so much aim at personal autonomy as it allows for the others to appear and assert themselves. This is precisely where Zaoui draws a link between his approach to discretion and humbleness, or humility according to Aquinas, in opposition to Augustine: ‘l’humilité consiste à s’effacer devant la divinité de l’autre tout en gardant conscience que l’on est soi-même d’origine divine, c’est-à-dire égal, et donc qu’il n’y a aucune raison qu’un tel effacement dure pour l’éternité’ (Zaoui 76). This he also locates at the heart of what he calls the experience of discretion, before he establishes the common ground of humbleness and discretion in interrelation, or connection. He quotes Aquinas and then comments:

‘Tout homme peut juger qu’il y a dans le prochain quelque chose de bon que lui-même n’a pas, ou qu’il y a en lui-même quelque chose de mauvais qui ne se trouve pas chez l’autre, ce qui lui permet de se mettre par humilité au-dessous du prochain.’ [. . .] [D]ans l’humilité, il n’y a en vérité aucune humiliation de soi, [. . .] il n’y a qu’une perception fine de ce qu’il y a encore de valeureux en l’autre, fût-ce la dernière des fripouilles. Et il faut bien concéder que là, on touche peut-être à l’origine de quelque chose qui s’appelle aujourd’hui la discrétion [. . .] le sentiment d’une relation de soi à l’autre, à la divinité de l’autre.
(Zaoui 80)

18Discretion is here defined as the most acute form of humanist humbleness. At the end of Where Angels Fear to Tread Philip sees, knows and acknowledges everything his new being owes to Gino, but he is now also able to see the others as never before, see their kindness or beauty: ‘“You appreciate us all—see good in all of us,”’ Miss Abbott tells him (Forster 1905, 134). Oscillating between sharing humbleness with Gino (‘“Poor Gino,” he thought. “He’s no greater than I am, after all.”’ [Forster 1905, 141]) and celebrating him, recognising how much better he is (‘“He’s much more honest with himself than I am,” continued Philip, “and he is honest without an effort and without pride.”’ [Forster 1905, 154]), Philip ends up asserting his own humbleness and endeavouring to do something out of it—courting Miss Abbot. Yet here too, he will ‘fail honourably!’ (Forster 1905, 133), and this ‘honourable failure’ (Forster 1905, 134) can be read as another humble failure. Despite the rebuff, he has the humility and nerve to suggest to Miss Abbott that she might still hope for a romance with Gino (Forster 1905, 159).

19From discretion and humbleness Pierre Zaoui moves to the notion of democracy: ‘Une société vivante et démocratique est une société où chacun peut devenir visible, être reconnu dans ses droits et sa dignité, et où chacun doit se garder régulièrement de l’être pour laisser un peu de place aux autres et au monde’ (Zaoui 119). Such a humanist, democratic approach to humbleness, performed as it is in both Where Angels Fear to Tread and Expo 58, reveals another connection between the two authors. The individual who may become visible is to be found everywhere with Forster, while the one who knows he must remain invisible is clearly the most recurrent figure in Coe’s novels. Humbleness, humanism and democracy may well be performed here, from Edwardianism and modernism to the most contemporary British fiction.


1 Jonathan Coe, ‘Jonathan Coe discusses Expo 58,’ online video clip, YouTube YouTube, 29 August 201, last accessed 14 July 2015.

2 E. M. Forster, Where Angels Fear to Tread (1905; London: Penguin, 2001), 70.

3 See also Miss Abbott’s diagnosis: ‘ “you look on life as a spectacle; you don’t enter it”’ (158).

4 Jonathan Coe, Expo 58 (London: Penguin, 2013) 116.

5 The novel teems with passages pointing at this inability to decide on anything. For example: ‘“I see,” said Thomas, even though he didn’t. “Well, I hadn’t quite decided”’ (Coe 33).

6 ‘En son sens étymologique, en effet, discrétion vient du latin discretio qui signifie discernement, séparation, distinction, ce qui s’entend encore dans l’anglais discretion et ce qui a donné son sens mathématique de discontinu. On ne saurait donc être discret en continu, la discrétion même présupposant une dialectique plus subtile de l’apparition et de la disparition, de la monstration et de la réserve. C’est en ce sens en tout cas que l’art de la discrétion nous semble relever d’un geste véritablement métaphysique, voire initialement théologique, celui visant à constituer son concept en le distinguant d’expériences proches mais distinctes: celles anciennes et mondaines du tact, de la pudeur, de la tenue, de la courtoisie, et celles religieuses de l’humilité, du détachement ou du retrait du monde.’ Pierre Zaoui, La Discrétion, ou l’art de disparaître (Paris: Autrement, 2013) 35.

7 See Laurent Mellet, L’œil et la voix dans les romans de E. M. Forster et leur adaptation cinématographique (Montpellier: PULM, 2012) 34.

8 To improve or develop: ‘And it is this undeveloped heart that is largely responsible for the difficulties of Englishmen abroad. An undeveloped heart—not a cold one.’ E. M. Forster, Abinger Harvest and England’s Pleasant Land, ed. Elizabeth Heine (1936; London: André Deutsch, 1996) 5.

9 Aristote, Éthique à Nicomaque, trans. Richard Bodéüs (Paris: Flammarion, 2004) 100, II 1103a30–1103b1. As Martha Nussbaum explains: ‘Aristotle emphasizes repeatedly that the goal of his ethical discourse is not theoretical but practical’. Martha C. Nussbaum, The Fragility of Goodness. Luck and Ethics in Greek Tragedy and Philosophy (Cambridge: CUP, 1986) 292.

10 Paul Ricœur, Histoire et vérité (1955; Paris: Seuil, 2011) 297.

11 Paul Ricœur, Du texte à l’action. Essais d’herméneutique II (1986; Paris: Seuil, 1998) 444.

12 See Laurent Mellet, Jonathan Coe. Les politiques de l’intime (Paris: PUPS, 2015) 52.

13 Jean-Paul Sartre, L’Existentialisme est un humanisme (1946; Paris: Gallimard, 2012) 30.

14 Guillaume Le Blanc, Que faire de notre vulnérabilité? (Montrouge: Bayard, 2011) 26. Translation mine.

15 Adam Phillips, Trois capacités négatives (Paris: L’Olivier, 2009).

16 Guillaume Le Blanc, L’Insurrection des vies minuscules (Montrouge: Bayard, 2014) 96.

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