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W. Somerset Maugham

The following are two selections from W. Someset Maugham’s acclaimed and highly autobiographical novel, Of Human Bondage. Both passages describe the protagonist, Philip, as he is reflecting on the tension between his carnal desires — which lure him to the enticing yet disloyal waitress, Mildred — and his common sense, which quietly calls him to love the sensitive and sweet Norah Nesbitt. The second passage is the concluding paragraph of the book, and it ranks (along with Ulyssess, A Tale of Two Cities, The Great Gasby, The Road, A Midsummer Nights Dream, and a handful of others) as one of the finest closings to a story ever put to page. Enjoy:

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“He went through an elaborate form of stamping his foot and walking about. Then he stood in front of the fire so that she should not resume her position. While she talked he thought that she was worth ten of Mildred; she amused him much more and was jollier to talk to; she was cleverer, and she had a much nicer nature. She was a good, brave, honest little woman; and Mildred, he thought bitterly, deserved none of these epithets. If he had any sense he would stick to Norah, she would make him much happier than he would ever be with Mildred: after all she loved him, and Mildred was only grateful for his help. But when all was said the important thing was to love rather than to be loved; and he yearned for Mildred with his whole soul. He would sooner have ten minutes with her than a whole afternoon with Norah, he prized one kiss of her cold lips more than all Norah could give him.

‘I can’t help myself,’ he thought. ‘I’ve just got her in my bones.’

He did not care if she was heartless, vicious and vulgar, stupid and grasping, he loved her. He would rather have misery with the one than happiness with the other.”

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“He realised that he had deceived himself; it was no self-sacrifice that had driven him to think of marrying, but the desire for a wife and a home and love; and now that it all seemed to slip through his fingers he was seized with despair. He wanted all that more than anything in the world. What did he care for Spain and its cities, Cordova, Toledo, Leon; what to him were the pagodas of Burmah and the lagoons of South Sea Islands? America was here and now. It seemed to him that all his life he had followed the ideals that other people, by their words or their writings, had instilled into him, and never the desires of his own heart. Always his course had been swayed by what he thought he should do and never by what he wanted with his whole soul to do. He put all that aside now with a gesture of impatience. He had lived always in the future, and the present always, always had slipped through his fingers. His ideals? He thought of his desire to make a design, intricate and beautiful, out of the myriad, meaningless facts of life: had he not seen also that the simplest pattern, that in which a man was born, worked, married, had children, and died, was likewise the most perfect? It might be that to surrender to happiness was to accept defeat, but it was a defeat better than many victories.”

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From W. Somerset Maugham’s novel Of Human Bondage.

Ever since I first heard it, I’ve liked the notion of “the consolations of philosophy”. Many thinkers, beginning with Boethius in the sixth century, have used this idea to encapsulate — and to an extent justify — the role of philosophy in the “everyday life” of man. Millennia later, Wittgenstein was only extending this epigram when he famously described philosophy as a form of therapy for maladaptive thinking.

And it is in that same way that I consider fiction a form of therapy for maladaptive feeling.

I won’t go into the typical, or perhaps even trite details of my personal life that have made these words of Maugham’s so immediately therapeutic, but I can say with complete certainty that their remedial powers are, at least for the moment, far greater than any of the head-banging, skull-scratching, and languid pacing that I’ve been doing over the past weeks.

A large part of literature’s emotionally sanative effects emanate from the fact that, when engrossed in a story, you are engaged in a form of vicarious living; and the person living this new life must share, to a greater or lesser extent, your same experiences and emotions, your thoughts and mental tendencies. There is no storytelling without this congruence between reader and character. A protagonist’s eyes are yours onto a new world, and when you identify with that character and that world, you are not only intertwined with another person — you’re engaged with that person’s psyche. For this reason, novelists are like companions, and your relationship with them begins, as C.S. Lewis noted about friendship, “at that moment when one person says to another: What! You too? I thought I was the only one.”

As Martin Amis wrote in his memoir, about his close friend Saul Bellow,

I see Saul perhaps twice a year, and we call, and we write. But that accounts for only a fraction of the time I spend in his company. He is on the shelves, on the desk, he is all over the house, and always in the mood to talk. That’s what writing is, not communication but a means of communion. And here are the other writers who swirl around you, like friends, patient, intimate, sleeplessly accessible, over centuries. This is the definition of literature.

The allure and consolations of fiction emanate from this simple fact: you can replace “he” in that passage with the name of any novelist you like, and they’ll be, like old friends, always in the mood to talk. Today, Maugham is the one who’s in my ear.