Monday, August 08, 2016

The Razor's Edge

Late night reading from one of my favorite books:

"Years ago, when I was young, I knew a man who was a doctor, and not a bad one either, but he didn't practice.  He spent years burrowing away the library of the British Museum and at long intervals produced a hug pseudo-scientific, pseudo-philosophical book that nobody read and that he had to publish at his own expense.  He wrote four or five of them before he died and they were absolutely worthless.  He had a son who wanted to go into the army, but there was no money to send him to Sandhurst, so he had to enlist.  He was killed in the war.  He had a daughter too.  She went on the stage but she had no talent and she traipsed around the provinces playing small parts in second-rate companies at a miserable salary.  His wife, after years of dreary, sordid drudgery, broke down in health and the girl had to come home and nurse her and take on the drudgery her mother no longer had the strength for.  Wasted, thwarted lives and all to no purpose.  It's a toss-up when you decide leave the beaten track.  Many are called but few are chosen."

As I type those words I see them anew (it is ever the way), and realize their context assumes the lives of wealthy people who should pass on the wealth to their children, who should preserve the wealth and continue passing it on (wealthy pre-Depression America, in the novel, though Maugham here is obviously referencing the English).  And that lovely language, with the hint of moral disapproval lingering at the edges, the kind of disapproval you really can't state anymore, even though the language vivifies the horror of the work-life:  "dreary, sordid drudgery."  It's almost like something out of Dickens but, at the same time, illuminates something we have lost in expression.

Then there's the whole overall tone:  "Wasted, thwarted lives and all to no purpose."  A post-war French novelist would make that the theme of the novel, the fate of humankind.  So would many a novelist today.  On the other hand, what is accomplishment?  Kierkegaard financed most of his publications, and died young in a very public fight with the Danish church and a Denmark paper.  His work only became notable about a century later.  To what purpose is that for him?  But then, to us....

"Wasted" and "thwarted" are always, like "progress," a matter of perspective.  Still, it's a telling passage from, as I say, one of my favorites among novels.


  1. "He spent years burrowing away the library of the British Museum and at long intervals produced a hug pseudo-scientific, pseudo-philosophical book that nobody read and that he had to publish at his own expense. He wrote four or five of them before he died and they were absolutely worthless."

    Happily, with the internet, we don't have the expense of publishing!

    (And no, I'm not referring to your blog....)

    But seriously, would these lives have been any less wasted and thwarted had his ideas sparked a new philosophical school, had his son been a military genius, had his daughter become a goddess of the stage, had his wife had the luxury of a staff to take care of the drudgery needed for everyday existence?

    I don't know the perspective of the character making these observations, and I'll admit I haven't looked at the book since I (we) read it in high school. But from a Christian perspective, or even from a humanist perspective that grants dignity to human beings simply as human beings, I find it very harsh, both on the ordinary and on those whose attempts to transcend the ordinary fail (as they ordinarily do).

    The protagonist, if I remember right, finds a kind of transcendence in something like Hinduism, a not-ignoble alternative to the collapses and conflicts of the West in the mid-20th century. I remember being told that he was based on Christopher Isherwood, just a name to me then, now known to me primarily as the author of "Mr. Norris Changes Trains," pre-Eastern, I think, but, for all its artistry showing the more disturbing side of non-attachment.

  2. In the context of the narrative (admittedly a narrow one), Maugham (both narrator and character, because he's telling the story to Isabel, Larry's ex-fiance; Larry being the protagonist of the tale) is assuming a certain view of the world. In fact, it's the topic of discussion: Larry's unwillingness to return to Chicago from Paris after two years "loafing" and assume his place in a brokerage house, make lots of money so his wife (Isabel) can live in the manner to which she is accustomed, and pass on that wealth to his children, who should live as he did (thus keeping the wealth alive).

    So, yeah, it's a very narrow view, especially taken out of context and looked at so baldly. Kind of like enjoying a comic book super-hero story, and then trying to explain it to someone and realizing it's all rather silly. (I just saw "Suicide Squad," which was enjoyable while it was on, but try to tell someone about it, and it just sounds silly.)

    The strength of the novel is the way the narrative is structured, not necessarily what the narrative is. Maugham can neither write with full sympathy for mysticism (he's too 20th century British for that), nor does he wish to be harshly empirical (and so fiercely skeptical). He places Larry in a certain social strata (with his counterweight being Eliot Templeton, the American snob), and then sets him at right angles to that social strata. Elsewhere it is clear Maugham is aware, if not entirely sympathetic with the fact, that this strata is a tiny sliver of human existence (not the entire world, as Eliot believes it to be). The nature of the narrative (reconstructed scenes from what the characters tell him at points much later in the chronology than when events occur) keeps us distanced from Larry enough to see his uniqueness without having to experience it to believe it (which is what most novels are about; putting us in the experience of the protagonist. Think of the early epistolary novels, like "Frankenstein," or Dickens, especially his later 1st person narratives.).

    Alright, I'm going to disappear into critical theory if I don't stop. The point is, I agree with you, and my apologetic for the novel (if I have one), is that Maugham is painting a picture of a particular world view and the class who live it (the underpinning of the idea of Maslow's hierarchy of needs), and then showing someone in essence walking away from Omelas not for social justice reasons, but for spiritual ones.

    To Isabel, Maugham's story perfectly illustrates the error of leaving the "beaten track." You can say Maugham believes this story a cautionary tale; or that he's speaking in the language Isabel understands. After all, pursuing your "dream" at almost all costs is heroic if it "works," and utter madness if it fails. Larry asked Isabel to accept his vision of a life worth living, but when she rejected it, he didn't marry her and force her to live that vision.

    The doctor in the story dragged his whole family into his decision, and ended up with nothing to show for it for anyone, and his family suffered severely for his choices. Was he selfish, or simply following a call he didn't really receive?

    It's actually an interesting question: at what point do you sacrifice others for your decision? At what point is your decision madness, selfishness even (in Christian terms, which is to say "sinful") rather than bravely enlightened?

    I remember, too, that Larry is supposed to be Isherwood, but I've never read enough of Isherwood's stuff to see if I believed it. Besides, Auden's Christianity was always much more interesting to me, and I don't think he really struggled to reconcile his faith with his homosexuality. Interestingly.....

    Which is not to say I disagree with your response. But it's an interesting question, too, how we determine what is, or is not (or not ever), failure. There are sound reasons, after all, for priests to never marry.