The Moon and Sixpence

Somerset Maugham’s ‘The Moon and Sixpence’ is loosely based on the life of the French post-impressionist artist Paul Gauguin. ‘Charles Strickland’, the character representing Gauguin in Maugham’s novel, is a comfortably positioned London stockbroker, who on the spur of an instinct, deserts his dependent wife and children, and relocates to Paris to pursue painting. Strickland does not desire fame, or any formal recognition of his talents. He is, in fact, genuinely uninterested in how others perceive or evaluate his art. He is simply motivated by a visceral need to visually express what his mind conceives. Strickland’s monomaniacal fidelity to his art, however, coexists with a brutal indifference to any human claims upon him. Maugham was always fascinated by this paradox of the supreme artist who is simultaneously utterly callous in his human interactions. This theme also surfaces in Maugham’s other works. E.g. In ‘Of Human Bondage’ Gauguin features in a conversation between art students Clutton and Phillip, and Phillip criticises Gauguin’s conduct towards his family. Clutton responds as follows:

“Oh, my dear fellow, if you want to be a gentleman you must give up being an artist. They’ve got nothing to do with one another. You hear of men painting pot-boilers to keep an aged mother–well, it shows they’re excellent sons, but it’s no excuse for bad work. They’re only tradesmen. An artist would let his mother go to the workhouse.”’

I can’t say I share Maugham’s fascination for Gauguin, who in the person of ‘Strickland’ is projected as a sardonic brute- a man who has zero compunction in using and disposing those who help him, and is merciless towards those who make the mistake of seeking any kind of emotional succor from him. If anything, he regards them with scorn, and views their kindness as contemptible weakness. The narrator describes Strickland as ‘an odious man, but a great one’ with a singular artistic vision, and an uncompromising zeal in realising it. My own indifference to Strickland, no doubt, partly ensues from my ignorance of the art form. I don’t understand the medium, and cannot distinguish between what is considered pedestrian and what is regarded as high art. In the novel, the subjective, sensory response a painting evokes, plays such a strong part in how it is evaluated. I think this somewhat distinguishes paintings or sculptures from other art forms. E.g. When critiquing a novel, there will always still be some objective parameters which the critic consciously or subconsciously applies in responding to a text. These parameters may vary widely depending on the nature or genre of the text, but they are nonetheless present in some form.

I also don’t see how it’s possible for any literary writer to produce a work devoid of any normative content; her work will necessarily say something about how she perceives what is happening around her. Strickland eschews all norms; literally everything outside of his canvas and paintbrush is a superfluous encumbrance. He lives to paint and doesn’t care about anything else. So then what informs his paintings? What was it that he was trying to put on his canvas? Is it a purely sensory process? After reading the ‘The Moon and Sixpence’, I looked up Gauguin’s paintings, and was mildly interested in what I saw, without really gaining a sense of what he was seeking to express, beyond what the paintings obviously featured. The qualities that rendered his art great, are only inchoately described in the novel, with one perhaps needing to have some knowledge of the medium and art history to understand how the paintings reflect the ‘strange, tormented and complex’ personality of their maker.

For me, the highlight of Maugham’s writing, is his genius for bringing to light the many contradictions that are inherent within most individuals. In ‘The Moon and Sixpence’ there is the obvious discrepancy between the greatness of Strickland’s art and the baseness of his actions. However, I think this talent of Maugham’s is best displayed in his portrayal of secondary characters such as such as Dirk Stroeve. Stroeve is a bumbling fellow-artist who himself only knows how to produce hackneyed, trite artworks, but has an exquisite and instinctive appreciation for anything uniquely original or beyond the ordinary. He sees something exalted in Strickland’s paintings, and becomes doggedly devoted to the man himself. This devotion is met with open derision and humiliating sarcasm on the part of Strickland. With reference to Stroeve’s own work, the narrator comments:

“I discovered in Paris he had been painting just the same stale, obviously picturesque things that he had painted for years in Rome. It was all false, insincere, shoddy; and yet no one was more honest, sincere and frank than Dirk Stroeve. Who could resolve the contradiction?”

The novel is very elegantly written, and abundantly exhibits Maugham’s characteristic wit and perspicacity. When reviewing Maugham’s work, I am always strongly conscious of not being able to do justice to it, and feel tempted to quote entire passages so that the prospective reader can perceive its highly impressive quality first hand, without having to rely on my clumsy attempts at paraphrasing. In the course of the novel the narrator makes many astute and penetrating observations on a wide range of subjects. These are seamlessly woven into the novel, and never feel in the least obtrusive. Take for example, the narrator’s perspective on those who claim to be unconcerned about what others think of them:

“When people say they do not care what others think of them, for the most part they deceive themselves…It is not difficult to be unconventional in the eyes of the world when your unconventionality is but the convention of your set. It affords you then an inordinate amount of self esteem. You have the self-satisfaction of courage without the inconvenience of danger.”

This reflection is made in the context of understanding Strickland’s rare and complete immunity to societal censure.

There is also so much humour imbedded in ‘The Moon and Sixpence’ with several passages of the novel causing the reader to chuckle out loud. Take, for example, the unnamed narrator’s introductory remarks on the unanimous critical acclaim Strickland’s art came to acquire, a unanimity not reflected in the responses to, and accounts of, his life. The narrator drolly relates how poor Reverend Strickland, abandoned son of the departed artist, is perturbed by many facets of his father’s life and writes a sanitised biography of Charles Strickland, perhaps seeking to reconcile the man to himself, as much as to anyone else. This biography is reviewed by ‘psycho-pathologist’ Dr. Weitbretch –Rotholz, who promptly proceeds to tear it to shreds, and castigates the author in the most unreserved terms.

“…it is difficult to avoid feeling a certain sympathy for the unlucky parson. His decent reticence is branded as hypocrisy, his circumlocutions are roundly called lies, as his silence is vilified as treachery. And on the strength of peccadillos, reprehensible in an author, but excusable in a son, the Anglo-Saxon race is roundly accused of prudishness, humbug, pretentiousness, deceit, cunning and bad cooking….Dr. Weitbrecht-Rotholz was an enthusiastic admirer of Charles Strickland , and there was no danger that he would whitewash him. He had an unerring eye for the despicable motive in actions that had all the appearance of innocence. He was a psycho-pathologist, as well as a student of art, and the subconscious had few secrets from him. No mystic ever saw deeper meaning in common things. The mystic sees the ineffable and the psycho-pathologist the unspeakable.”

Also very amusing are the circumstances in which the narrator becomes acquainted with Charles Strickland, and seeks him out in Paris. The narrator is an up and coming young writer who frequents the lunches and tea-parties thrown for London literati by their socialite admirers. It is on one such occasion that he becomes acquainted with the amiable Mrs. Strickland who enjoys listening to, and mingling with, the writers and artists of the day. Her husband, stockbroker Charles Strickland has never taken her into his confidence with respect to his artistic inclinations, and when he bolts to Paris, she is convinced that it must for another woman. The narrator, her friend, is dispatched to Paris, with the mission of bringing Charles back. The narrator prepares the speeches he is going to deliver, and thinks through the methods he will employ to shame Strickland into returning, determining to resort to strong invective if necessary. He is thrown off balance when Strickland blithely admits to all charges, and unperturbedly proceeds to state his indifference. Herein, also lies the only flaw I found in the novel. How does Amy Strickland’s amicable enough husband of seventeen years, turn into such an ogre overnight? His actions may have resulted from his artistic compulsions and protracted boredom and ennui, but the total change in personality that accompanies his flight to Paris is slightly discordant.

Like many of Maugham’s works ‘The Moon and Sixpence’ is brilliantly and seemingly effortlessly written. Cerebral, and yet wholly unaffected, it makes for a very enjoyable read for art enthusiasts and novices alike.©

 

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Of Human Bondage

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*Please note that the following review contains spoilers

Somerset Maugham’s ‘Of Human Bondage’ is an exceptional novel. A semi-autobiographical bildungsroman focusing on the emotional and intellectual development of Philip Carey, ‘Of Human Bondage’ easily qualifies as a classic. Philip Carey is orphaned at the age of nine, and falls under the guardianship of his uncle, the Vicar of Blackstable, and his wife. The novel explores Philip’s emotional and intellectual development from his childhood and school career to his years as a student of diverse disciplines. Philip initially studies languages in Germany, and following an attempt at chartered accountancy in London, considers the prospect of becoming a painter. While Phillip’s two years in Paris as an art student are far from fruitless, he feels that he can never be more than a second-rate painter. Returning to London, Philip ultimately decides to embark upon a career of medicine.

The novel so far introduces us to several superbly drawn and utterly believable characters whose lives have traversed Philip’s in some way, such as the masters at Kings school, the complacent self-satisfied Vicar, his loving and fragile wife Louisa Carey, Miss. Wilkinson, the disagreeable yet pitiable Fanny Price, Hayward, Cronshaw etc. However, never have Philip’s thoughts and feelings been so strongly and compulsively fixated on one object as when he meets Mildred Rogers- an anaemic waitress and the devouring, all-consuming love of Phillip’s life. Mildred Rogers has to be one the most vicious characters in all of fiction. She is indifferent to Phillip, and insensible to his attentions and desperate entreaties for her love. Loving him is something out of her power. Yet, she is not above benefiting from his generosity, humiliating him, abasing him, making him grovel before her, and using him to the utmost. Philip’s love is not blind. He sees her for what she is, but a sort of inexorable force constantly draws him towards her. Every time she enters his life and wreaks havoc, he is helpless before her:

“He did not care if she was heartless, vicious and vulgar, stupid and grasping, he loved her…..He hated her, he despised her, he loved her with all his heart”.

This sort of attachment may seem uncanny and bizarre, but is very convincingly depicted in the novel. You feel for Philip, his self-destructive love for Mildred may be exasperating but you never want to blame him. He loves her inspite of her and inspite of himself. This relationship is one form of bondage Philip eventually manages to extricate himself from. Another force dominating the early part of his life, which Philip also perceives as a form of bondage is religion. His religious education begins at home in Blackstable and is augmented by what he learns at King’ School. Philip suffers from a clubfoot. His faith is first somewhat shaken when as a child he ardently prays that his clubfoot may be miraculously cured, so that he can run around and play like the other boys. His foot remains as it was. However, his real spiritual inquiry begins through his conversations with Weeks and Hayward in Germany. Some of Philip’s concerns will probably find an echo in the private thoughts of many theists of different faiths: what of non-believers? So much of faith seems a matter of chance, the role of fear in the retention of faith etc. At core, however, Philip is unable to believe in the existence of God. To Philip suffering, loss, success and happiness all seem to be so indiscriminately apportioned and he observes that the ‘rain fell alike upon the just and upon the unjust, and for nothing was there a why and a wherefore’. Attending this is his conviction in the meaninglessness of life which he regards as a liberating force:

“Suddenly he realised that he had also lost that burden of responsibility which made every action of his life a matter of urgent consequence. He was responsible only to himself for the things he did . Freedom! He was his own master at last. From old habit, unconsciously he thanked God that he no longer believed in him.”

‘Of Human Bondage’ in some ways reminded me of another very different novel: Milan Kundera’s ‘The Unbearable Lightness of Being’. The context which informs the strong nihilism underpinning this novel is the communist order existing in Czechoslovakia. In ‘The Unbearable Lightness of Being” Kundera presents the lightness/weight dichotomy, first postulated by Parmenides in the sixth Century B.C. whereby one acquires a state of lightness by divesting actions or life experiences of any deeper meaning or resonance. These actions are purportedly just the product of an individual’s exercise of his own volition, and have no place or special significance within the larger scheme of things or a “super-imposed grand narrative”. During the Cold War, in the Eastern block the most trivial and minor events were automatically invested with tremendous meaning by being positioned within the exhausted and impoverished State narrative, or being viewed as auguring a predicted turn in the larger dynamics at play. Of course, because the State ‘grand narrative’ was very much at odds with the economic and social realities encountered under Communist rule, this perfunctory or mechanical mode of imbuing events with broader significance had the effect of inducing extreme weariness. It had the effect of rendering life “pervasively, oppressively meaningful” (1). The cynicism and weariness generated by the imposition of a communist order was not confined to matters directly involving the state, but infused all aspects of life. As one critic John Bayley articulates:

‘The only escape from the congealed political kitsch of the regime is into the lightness of total irresponsibility… the regime corrupts totally the private consciousness of the citizens….Communism in practice cannot conquer the private life, but it makes it light and meaningless, weightless and cynical.’ (2)

Yet the response ‘The Unbearable Lightness of Being’ evoked in me was radically different to that generated by ‘Of Human Bondage’. The former novel filled me with a sense of bleakness. For all it’s brilliance a sense of morbidity permeated every page. Kundera’s himself appears to be one of those supremely cynical citizens (or former citizens), whose private consciousness has been corrupted. His vision repelled me and I found myself totally recoiling from the actions of some of his characters. With ‘Of Human Bondage’ you can agree, disagree or have a mixed response to the novel’s underlying philosophy, but you never cease to like Philip. He is a very nice person. Sensitive and thoughtful, the overriding quality you associate with him is kindness. He hurts Norah Nesbit by leaving her for Mildred, but he is never actuated by malice. While your own perspective may diverge from his you never lose sight of the fact that his questions are legitimately grounded, emanate from his own experiences, and don’t have easy answers. A disavowal of faith and belief that he is only responsible to himself, does not induce any difference in the way Philip conducts himself towards others. Philip is of the view that while he no longer believes, he cannot divorce himself from Christian ethics, and that this implicitly informs some of his behaviour. His friend and, to some extent, mentor Cronshaw has a different theory. Cronshaw maintains that whatever good people do, is ultimately for their own pleasure. Taking up pain and hardship with a view to achieving certain results, is merely delayed gratification. He states:

‘It is pleasure that lurks in the practice of every one of your virtues. Man performs actions because they are good for him and when they are good for other people as well they are thought virtuous: If he finds pleasure in giving alms he is charitable; if he finds pleasure in helping others he is benevolent, if he find pleasure in working for society he is public spirited; but it is for your private pleasure that you give twopence to a beggar as much as it is for my private pleasure that I drink another whisky and soda. I, less of a humbug than you, neither applaud myself for my pleasure nor demand your admiration.’

On the face of it, Cronshaw’s argument is sound enough. Ultimately we do things for our own satisfaction. Our ‘pleasure’ in performing a particular service may just be avoiding the guilt or potential regret of not doing it. But obviously numerous complex and even contradictory variables will enter into a decision to do or refrain from doing a particular thing. What is to be gained from reducing these variables and the competing motives which underlie them, and bringing them all under the overarching umbrella of ‘pleasure’? That we do things for our own pleasure may even seem like a trite statement of fact. It’s more interesting to ask why certain things or acts of kindness commonly confer pleasure (on both the recipient and the giver) . The answer seems inextricably linked with some concept of innate morality.

‘Of Human Bondage’ is beautifully written. The prose is sophisticated and expressive without ever sounding verbose. Maugham is aiming at the direct expression of Philip’s thoughts and experiences, and the writing retains a simple elegance. Amongst Maugham’s chief strengths is his understanding of people and his insight into their psychological make-up, and one of the outstanding features of ‘Of Human Bondage’ is just how effectively the diverse characters which populate it are rendered. All of them have something interesting to impart, and you have absolutely no doubt that they were at least partially drawn from real life. Maugham is known to have referred to himself as being ‘in the very first row of the second-raters’. I think he was being modest in the extreme. There is nothing second rate about ‘Of Human Bondage’.©

(1)Terry Eagleton, ‘Estrangement and Irony’, Salmagundi, 73 (Winter 1987)
(2)John Bayley, ‘Fictive Lightness, Fictive Weight’, Salmagundi, no. 73 (Winter 1987)