November 7, 2019: Unnecessary Notes After Reading “The Other Side of the Hedge” by E.M. Forster

“The Other Side of the Hedge” by E.M. Forster is one of the short stories that I do not get tired of reading. I keep coming back to it, not because it is great literature but because it reminds me that we need to unwind and enjoy life whenever we can. It is a story that touches my heart and, most importantly, it is a story that carefully whispers, “When you are tired, don’t forget to take a break.”

When I read it last night, I felt the urge to write something about it. I crawled out of bed and opened the notebook I had on my bedside table. There were two empty pages left in it. I decided to fill them.

So I wrote, ‘I remember the first time I read “The Other Side of the Hedge”. Early morning. Espresso in a paper cup. A cigarette drooping from my lips. Sitting on the stairs at the entrance of the restaurant where I used to work. Waiting for Hassan (or Hussein) to come and unlock the main door so that I go in and start my shift.’

I paused for a moment to reread what I wrote. Unsatisfied, I decided to spend some time on summarizing the story.

‘At the beginning of the story, the unnamed narrator is so tired from walking that he decides to sit down to rest. We quickly discover the world he lives in: Life is a race, literally, and the only goal is to move forward — to advance. (The whole story is one big metaphor.) As soon as he pauses to rest, the narrator is outstripped and left behind. No one stops to help him; they are all busy competing against one another. He remembers his brother whom he had left by the roadside a couple of years ago. “He had wasted his breath on singing, and his strength on helping others,” he recollects, believing that he had traveled more wisely than his brother had. However, he does confess that the tediousness of the road distresses him —“… dust under foot and brown crackling hedges on either side, ever since I could remember.” The unnamed narrator then inadvertently ends up on the other side of the hedge where there is no competition, and everyone seems to be happy and worry-free. When he asks where this place leads to, the answer he receives is, “Nowhere, thank the Lord!” He is shocked to hear this.’

I paused again. This wasn’t what I wanted to do. I wanted to write something about the story. But what was it? What did I want to say? I couldn’t remember. Unsatisfied again, I turned the page. I had filled the first of the last two pages.

I stared at the empty page for a minute or two. Then, in the middle of the page, I wrote, ‘If I were on the other side of the hedge now, I was probably sleeping comfortably.’

Now, as I am about to publish this post, I am thinking, ‘What does this all mean?’

The answer is, ‘Probably nothing.’

The Performer

The feeling strikes you as soon as the play is over, as soon as the crowd starts applauding. It is the feeling of both mourning and despondency combined, a feeling that no matter how many times you have experienced before, you still go through it as if for the first time, each time. The sound of applause is the sound of rain on the man’s funeral day, the character you just left behind. You know you cannot (and if you can, you are not allowed to) take the character with you backstage or anywhere. Whatever is beyond the platform is a transcending universe that the fictional character (the role you played) cannot reach. Once you are aware of that the mourning begins.

The actor mourns over his character each time the lights go out and the curtains close. It is when the character dies and the nausea strikes you. This is like no other mourning you have ever heard of. It is the mourning of the soul over the body. For those few hours, your body represented him and not you.  You were the soul of a fictional character that was animate and breathing. Camus was right when he wrote that “the actor’s realm is that of the fleeting. Of all kinds of fame, it is known, his is the most ephemeral.” Something dies every time the lights go out.

Someone who is not familiar with such an art would think that each time the actor performs the same role again, the same fictional character will be resurrected. But it is not so, the character dies every night, and the soul is detached from the body every night for the first time.

The actor is also despondent. He always feels as though it was over too soon or that he could have given the character a better life. He becomes the mother who has failed her only child. It is with guilt and regret that he goes down the stairs leaving the stage. The actor is a usurper soul that infiltrates a body and fails to live up to it – always, every time. And there is nothing he can do about it – a sense of helplessness poisons him. Here, maybe, the actor is much like Sisyphus. The end of the play is the moment the rock rolls back down from the top of the mountain.

Driven by anxiety, it starts with the most ridiculous thing that is soon transformed into a masterpiece… but repeatedly the actor is faced with unfortunate events that deviate him (the character’s soul) from the path of the body (for a moment you are out of your character and your actual body and you see yourself as a third person), mistakes occur and the acting (the becoming) is never complete.

How nostalgic and miserable an actor must be, constantly in mourning, constantly suffering from failure.


Note: This was written in 2015 and was first published on World of Gauche, a blog that no longer exists today. I am publishing this now, as is, without editing it. I do not want to work on it or make an effort to “fix” it. Originally, it was a journal entry that I decided to share — and it still is. Dear reader, I hope you like it.