It’s a standard question for writers (or indeed any type of artist), so E. M. Forster would often be asked who or what had influenced him. In response, he would question, perhaps surprisingly, whether ‘influence’ was an important category in the first place. After fifty years of reading, he suggested in 1944 BBC radio essay that he could easily identify his three most significant books: Dante’s The Divine Comedy, Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Tolstoy’s War and Peace. He called them ‘monuments’. He went on:

E M Forster (© Getty)

Of course, they did something for me, these three monuments. They impressed me by their massiveness and design, and made me feel small in the right way, and to make us feel small in the right way is the chief function of art; men can only make us feel small in the wrong way. But that’s not the same as influencing. To realize the vastness of the universe, the limits of human knowledge, the even narrower limits of human power; to catch a glimpse of the vision of Dante, or of the Roman Empire on its millennial way, or of Napoleon collapsing against the panorama of Russian daily life–that’s not to be influenced. It’s to be extended, and Heaven knows we’re all in need of extension. Perhaps these three books were too monumental, too great, to have any discernible effect on my conduct or outlook. Perhaps human beings are not much influenced by monuments. They gaze at the monumnt, and say, ‘Oh!’ and pass on unchanged. Aren’t they more likely to be influenced by smaller objects–objects nearer thier own size? Anyhow, that’s been my own case. (The Creator as Critic and other Writings, E. M. Forster, (Dundurn, 2008) p278)

It’s that throwaway phrase about art’s function which struck me. And its opposite. Which brings me to my latest Q Combination…

A beautiful poem by the late great Seamus Heaney and a stunning image from German photographer Andreas Gursky.

(portraits © Seamus Heaney by Louis Quail 2006; Andreas Gursky by HPSchaefer 2013)

Gursky captures the modern world on a vast scale. Click here to zoom in throughout this strange, unsettling human zoo he called May Day V. Of course, there’s a nice pun there, because, of course, it doubles up as the international maritime distress signal. “May Day” is an anglicisation of the French, “m’aidez” (= ‘help me’).

So how might the Nobel laureate poet have responded? Perhaps with this poem. A beautiful, earthy but not earth-bound, multi-sensory experience from being immersed in nature’s grandeur. Its ‘buffetings’ will ‘catch the heart off guard and blow it open’. And in this way, our modern buffered selves (to use Charles Taylor’s phrase) are forced to become more porous, to be open to the realms beyond the material; to be open, perhaps, even to the divine…

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