The Sounds of Silence

06/01/2015 06:03 pm ET | Updated Jun 01, 2016

The British writer, E.M. Forster, published his last truly great novel, A Passage to India, in 1924. This novel is about many things - the differences between men and women, between cultures and countries, between the races, between the animal and human kingdoms, and between competing value systems.

Buried not quite halfway through the novel, at the beginning of Chapter 14, is another difference, the difference between speaking and remaining silent:

"Most of life is so dull that there is nothing to be said about it, and the books and talk that would describe it as interesting are obliged to exaggerate, in the hope of justifying their own existence. Inside its cocoon of work or social obligation, the human spirit slumbers for the most part, registering the distinction between pleasure and pain, but not nearly as alert as we pretend. There are periods in the most thrilling day during which nothing happens, and though we continue to exclaim: 'I do enjoy myself,' or 'I am horrified,' we are insincere. 'As far as I feel anything, it is enjoyment, horror' - it's no more than that really, and a perfectly adjusted organism would be silent."

Forster seems to have plucked this stunning aside directly from the ether and dropped it into the middle of his story without much in the way of preparation or follow-up. What is he saying? Why does he make this observation? If, after all, silence is so good, why finish reading his novel? Am I somehow poorly adjusted whenever I open my mouth?

This "passage" has haunted me for over 40 years - since I bought and first read the novel in Milan in 1971. After publishing "A Passage to India," Forster himself spent the remainder of his life more or less silent. For decades he was a Fellow at his alma mater, Trinity College at Cambridge University, where he died in 1970. He wrote some nonfiction -- mostly essays, biographies, and travel memoirs -- but he never again produced a work of fiction that rivaled his early short stories, Howards End (1910), or "Passage." A mostly autobiographical novel about his hidden homosexuality, Maurice, appeared posthumously in 1971, but many critics feel that his standing as a novelist would have been enhanced had "Maurice" never appeared. But whatever one might think of "Maurice" as a novel, it nonetheless remains unfortunate that Forster was unable - as a matter of personal choice as well as existing English law at the time (homosexuality between consenting adult men was a crime in England until 1967) - to publish his views during his lifetime. After 1924, he was spent as a writer of fiction and effectively blocked in terms of being public about his homosexuality. He knew this; hence his silence.

There is, however, a thread that runs throughout Forster's fiction and, especially, the paragraph cited above, that speaks to us today. While Forster excels at describing differences, what he is really saying to us is to find ways to bridge those differences. That's why the phrase "Only connect," (which borrows from the views of Victorian writer Matthew Arnold) appears at the beginning of his other great novel, "Howards End." It is the effort in life to find connections that matters most to him - even if one fails in the effort. There is failure in "Howards End" when the Schlegel sisters and Leonard Bast fail to bridge bridge their class differences, and there is failure at the end of "A Passage to India" when the Englishman and the Indian realize that they cannot be friends:

"'Why can't we be friends now?' said the other, holding him affectionately. 'It's what I want. It's what you want.'

"But the horses didn't want it - they swerved apart; the earth didn't want it ... the temples, the tank, the jail, the palace, the birds ... they didn't want it, they said in their hundred voices: 'No, not yet,' and the sky said: 'No, not there.'"

This failure to connect between Indian and Englishman also finds a parallel in "Maurice" which appeared almost 50 years later. There was connection, but it was clandestine and, of course, unpublished.

The question I find prompted by Forster today is whether, in fact, we are trying too hard to be too connected? Are we so connection-crazy that in the frenzy we are missing opportunities to find in our lives those connections that really matter? What does it mean, for example, to be "friended," to be asked to "friend" inanimate objects or department stores, or to "follow" a Member of Congress or a celebrity? Today's wonderful communications technology may, in fact, be a double-edged sword: we may be so connected on so many levels and with so many people, things, and issues that we lose the capacity and the essential personal space needed to reflect on what we are actually doing and trying to achieve in our lives.

Does our frenetic connectedness mean that we actually hear more but listen less? Forster is urging people to connect, but is his statement about the virtue of silence a suggestion that perhaps we might consider a better balance between non-stop connectedness and the silence needed to reflect? He does, after all, have a point: are the vast majority of "Tweets" worth the bother? And given what Hillary Clinton is going through with respect to her State Department e-mails and her private, at-home server, why on earth are we saving billions of "Tweets for posterity? Only litigation-hungry lawyers could welcome this situation.

Recently I attended a Washington, DC, forum on the nation's economic and fiscal policy. The speakers were excellent, but I noticed that during the breaks, the large screens in the front of the room displayed "Tweets" from people who were either in the room or who were attending the forum via a remote connection. Did I really need to know in 140 characters the views of perfect strangers who were spitting back to me the content of what I had just experienced? Could I have better used the break to think about what had been said or, for that matter, talk face-to-face with other participants (which I did)?

It is estimated that there are some 500 million Tweets sent each day and over 200 billion Tweets sent each year. These numbers will surely grow. I have nothing against Twitter or other social media, but, at the same time, doesn't Forster have a point? That most of this stuff is so dull that there is nothing really to be said about it?

All of us have been vastly empowered by modern communications technology - and this is a good thing. The question remains, however, whether we might somehow strive to find a better balance between too much connectedness and total silence. I don't ever expect to be a "perfectly adjusted organism," but I do strive to screen out the chatter that can sometimes get in the way of better listening and better understanding.

Charles Kolb served as Deputy Assistant to the President for Domestic Policy from 1990-1992 in the George H.W. Bush White House. He was president of the French-American Foundation--United States from 2012-2014 and president of the Committee for Economic Development from 1997-2012.