Where has John Galsworthy been all my life? I have read thousands of books and never read The Forstye Sage. What a revelation! Charles Dickens go bark at the moon! Galsworthy lived from 1867 to 1932 and his work reveals an attitude of “a man of property”; Soames Forstye; timeless and timely. Galsworthy has an insight into British exceptionalism that is familiar and sad in its intransigeant. Soames is a solidly wealthy man. Not only did he inherit great wealth he was raised to believe in his superiority in that fact. Having grown his wealth with practical English logic almost Vulcan in its detachment, he finds himself in his later years defending his universe to himself thus;
Take his own case for example! He was well off. Did that do anybody harm? He did not eat ten meals a day; he did no more than, perhaps not so much as, a poor man. He spent no money on vice; breathed no more air, used no more water to speak of than the mechanic or the porter. He certainly had pretty things about him, but they had given employment in the making, and somebody must use them. He bought pictures, but Art must be encouraged. He was, in fact, an accidental channel through which money flowed, employing labour. (sic) What was there objectionable in that? In his charge money was in quicker and more useful flux that it would be in the charge of the State and a lot of slow-flying money sucking officials. And as to what he saved each year-it was just as much flux as what he didn’t save, going into Water Board or Council Stocks, or something sound and useful. The State paid him no salary for being trustee of his own or other people’s money – he did that all for nothing! Therein lay the whole case against nationalisation – owners of private property were unpaid, and yet had every incentive to quicken up the flux. Under nationalization (sic) – just the opposite!
Soames’ cogitations come in the roaring twenties and with a jaundice eye toward human beings he has been able to ride the profits of chaos with the expertise of the great British Empire builders and explorers. He is not oblivious to the “ruffians” in the market running up commodities, selling shoddy goods and undermining the practical English character. His only concern is to dodge these gamblers and come out ahead. He is totally unaware of the benefits bequeathed to him on the backs of slaves and oppression. After this brief attempt at bolstering his own world view he proceeds to one of his many law offices and orders sale of stocks and the eviction of an old woman of eighty three. There! English practicality prevails and all is right with the world!
The attitude of the elite, the 1% is a grand and gross rationalization. What harm does it do indeed!? Soames is a cold man of property, his love of his first wife was that of a buyer of beauty. When he realizes he may lose this perfectly beautiful woman his response is to show her how much she “belongs” to him by “ enforcing his rights as a husband” ; spousal rape. Confident in his re-possession, believing she was finally convinced of his loyalty to her by his showing of intense emotion he is devastated by her finding a lover. Devastated to learn of her careful avoidance of pregnancy, and suffers the role of the victim, why doesn’t she adore me?
I can’t help feeling sorry for him as does his cousin Jolyon Forstye who marries Irene, the woman who from some “perversion” is unable to submit to Soames. Unsentimental, practical, controlled and controlling English man of art bought and paid for, but artless to his core. In his way he feels deeply his position in the Empire and his family, but never expresses it, each rare tender moment with a dying father, the birth of a daughter, the grief of losing his perfect wife, is concentrated, condensed to the point of pain almost unbearable; to be carefully hidden and covered over with business, logic, plans. Force and strength are all he knows. He does not know he is lost, caged and cut off, like Midas.
The crash is coming, war yet again. His type will be undone, the gilded cage will break and like domesticated birds he will not be able to fly for he never learned. A world will crash about him. As a reader almost one hundred years later, to see this hubris repeated yet again makes me feel like an alien in a weird way. The elite of today, those empire builders that had it handed to them after World War II are coming to the downhill side; Tied in knots by their own exceptionalism, their own practical rationalizations’. The “job makers”, the Kings of the Universe, the smartest men in the room, the men of free markets, of world order.
I am reminded of the poem by Kipling;
The White Mans Burden;
Take up the White Man’s burden
Send forth the best ye breed
Go bind your sons to exile
To serve the captive’s need
In patience to abide,
To veil the threat of terror
And check the show of pride;
The savage wars of peace
Fill full the mouth of Famine
And bid the sickness cease;
And reap his old reward:
The blame of those ye better,
The hate of those ye guard
We should trade white for rich as in the new world economy the “burden” is shared and carefully nurtured by the elite of all races, colors and creeds. America may have been handed the spoils of empire after World War II, but the views of the fictional Soames Forsyte have been sold to the entire world. We fought the fascism of old only to pass down and expand that fascism in a “burden” of democratic fascism to all men around the world. The rich are democratic among themselves, a country apart. They see themselves as the conduit of civilization, nothing would happen without them; not greatness, no jobs, no art or beauty. They will tell you it isn’t about the money and it would be the God’s honest truth. What is this human capacity for wearing psychic blinders? Are they put on while one is very young? Are we born with them, the psyche’s way of protecting the young ego, and then that same ego is never allowed to take them off? Why is it that the elite rich keep the blinders in place? It seems to me that the culture of wealth must maintain a separation in their minds between their actions and the fragile ego’s knowledge of the harm they do? This wall is kept carefully between themselves and the “lower” classes. (Euphemistically called “working” class) They must know. They can’t possibly live in such fish bowls where everyone can see all they do as they parade around and deny what we all see and experience. It is a grand culture of narcissism.
Galsworthy’s ability to observe a class, his keen subjectivity as a Brit, his poetic prose, the beauty is astonishing almost breath taking like fine portraiture. One chapter covering the death of old Jolyn Forsyte leaves one in a state of longing for all death to be as beautiful. All writing should aspire to this.