Triveni Journal

1927 | 11,233,916 words

Triveni is a journal dedicated to ancient Indian culture, history, philosophy, art, spirituality, music and all sorts of literature. Triveni was founded at Madras in 1927 and since that time various authors have donated their creativity in the form of articles, covering many aspects of public life....

Asidhara: A Study of Maugham's The Razor's Edge

G. Nageswara Rao 



Though, above all, Maugham wanted his readers to see him as a mere detached narrator of events, and does often see himself simply as that, his purpose does not end there. Despite his continuous attempt to beguile the reader, while beguiling himself that he is nomore than a narrator, a careful reader cannot but feel that, beneath his mask of a chatty, engaging story-teller, there is an unquiet spirit preoccupied with the human predicament, and the ultimate values of life. In all his major novels he has his views to express, mostly in the form of piercing sideglances on characters, events and situations, a view of life to present, and a message to convey.

Maugham started his obstinate questioning quite early in his life and developed agnostic, if not atheistic, tendencies even as a school boy. In his Of Human Bondage he devoted a full chapter to describe Philip’s loss of faith in Christianity. That his hero’s loss of faith is an account of his own loss of faith is attested by Maugham himself.1 But, the questioning spirit of a Maugham does not end with his rejection of religion and the existence of God. On the contrary, it leads him to a quest for a Philosophy of life which will enable him to face the facts of life with equanimity, courage and good humour. In fact, this appears to be the central theme of the most autobiographical of all his novels, Of Human Bondage. Philip’s struggle is not simply an attempt to get out of the clutches of his morbid affair with Mildred. It is the universal desire of man to free himself from human bondage. In The Moon and Sixpence the quest assumes a new shape: the struggle of an artist to realise himself, ‘to become a creature of the moment, clear of all ties.’ Maugham’s search after a personal philosophy of life becomes explicit in his The Razor’s Edge. Larry is not a synthesis of three of Maugham’s characters, “the exquisite Erick, the Vedanta-teaching Frith, both of The Narrow Corner, and the rebellious Edward of the shortstory, The Fall of Edward Barnard”,2 alone. He is a culmination of the Maugham hero in his pursuit of self-realisation.

That Maugham himself has been troubled by the questions which Larry asked is unmistakably evident from what he has written in his The Summing Up, A Writer’s Notebook and The Points of view.3 Like Maugham, Larry is an orphan, shy, sensitive and observant, and, both of them were troubled by the same questions: “Whether God is or God is not…to find out why evil exists….Whether I have an immortal soul or whether when I die it is the end”.4 Larry finds answers to all his questions in Hindu philosophy: in the Hindu concept of the three fold manifestation of the Absolute Reality, the doctrine of the ‘mysterious neuter’,  Brahman, and the theory of transmigration of souls. Here again (Maugham is presenting something which he himself derived from Hindu philosophy. Except the trance, all the experiences of Larry are the experiences of Maugham during his stay in India–especially in the Ashram of Ramana Maharshi. These experiences which he recorded in A Writer’s Notebooks are recounted in the novel almost verbatim. In short, Maugham’s dramatic presentation of the conversation between Larry and himself (the narrator is Mr. Maugham), is the author’s attempt to look at himself face to face.

The Razor’s Edge is a novel on the modern dilemma: why, in spite of the unthought of material comforts, and the tremendous technological expansion, man’s life is none the happier? This is the question which puzzled all the great writers and thinkers after the war. The problem is brilliantly posed by W. H. Auden in his poem The Unknown Citizen

“He was fully sensible to the advantages of the Instalment Plan
And had everything necessary to the Modern Man,
A phonograph, a radio, a car and a frigidaire.”

But Auden asks:

“Was he free? Was he happy? The question is absurd:
Had anything been wrong, we should certainly have heard”. 6

The main reason for this universal disillusionment is man’s loss of faith in everything including himself. The three thinkers’ most influential at the time, Darwin, Marx and Freud (at least as they are commonly understood) robbed man of all his glory–the first makes him a result of a blind biological accident, the second shows that all his thoughts, behaviour, taste and culture, are simply the product of the dialectic of matter, and the third literally traces everything connected With man to sex, psychological factors and traumas. Therefore, man is neither capable of real choice nor responsible for the choices he makes. The best he can do is to take himself socially useful.

This led to rapid industrialisation. Industrialisation, besides its boons, imposes a dull pattern and a monotonous uniformity and a fixed routine on life. The way of life it evolves is completely devoid of tradition and any kind of belief whatever. It provides standardised comforts and a set of new values–quicker production, time-saving devices and Utilitarian outlook. The creative activity of man will be limited to particular patterns catering to popular conveniences. These factors incapacitate people, particularly the more lucky groups, to think, to feel and to react to anything outside the industrial milieu. To have real experiences, and to feel genuinely, becomes impossible. One, usually an artist, or a man endowed with finer sensibilities, who experiences them and expresses them is, dreaded and considered dangerous. He has either to escape from the society or to revolt against it. No artist can help feeling miserable or angry living the constant insult of self-betrayal.

Existence becomes tragic, it is a pity, only to those who are sensitive, intelligent, and capable of realising that the good life, progress or no progress, is man’s chief ideal. The final act in this tragedy of errors is the stage when society fails to define or perhaps when it becomes impossible for us to define, the good life in terms other than those of affluence. The result is frustration, boredom and purposelessness.

It is in this context that western writers like Yeats, Pound, Huxley, and Eliot, turned to the East, particularly to India. Maugham does the same.

Larry is born into the American society after the first war. He is placed in a social setting where good life is equated with affluent living and rank in society. Isabel, Larry’s lady love, Elliott, her socially eminent uncle, Mrs. Bradley, her mother and the wife of Mr. Bradley, who was ‘the first secretary’ of Rome, all believe in it. Larry, if he wants Isabel, must conform to the commendable customs of his country, and he has every chance and opportunity waiting for him. He will be a multi-millionaire if he simply accepts one of the many offers. ‘Larry had a chance of getting in on the ground floor, and if he kept his nose to the grindstone he might well be many times a millionaire by the time he was forty.” 7 Isabel, though she admires Larry, cannot think of marrying him, if he does not enter business. “Isabel had been brought up in a certain way and she accepted the principles that had been instilled into her. She did not think of money, because she had never known what it was not to have all she needed, but she was instinctively aware of its importance. It meant power, influence and social consequence. It was the natural and obvious thing that man should earn it. That was his plain life’s work”. 8

Larry, as he does not swim with the tide, is looked upon as a big joke; as an odd man. He does not escape like Maugham’s artist hero of The Moon and Sixpence into the South Seas to be far away from this madding crowd. He faces the facts of life. He keeps himself free from the “fret, fever and the disease of modern life” by a process of spiritual levitation or non-attachment. He determines his life ideal, the search after truth, leading to ultimate realisation. He resolves and lives up to his resolution; chooses and sticks to his choice. He embarks upon the most difficult of all tasks, as the title The Razor’s Edge, suggests. In the words of the Katha Upanishad it is “sharp as the edge of a razor and hard to cross, difficult to tread is that path (so) sages declare”, 9 the words which Maugham took as the epigraph.

The first proof of Larry’s detachment is his attitude to Isabel. He never thinks of marrying her, nor does he flinch to give her up when he realises that she wants ‘a square cut diamond and a sable coat’, not him. He does not create an Occasion, for bouts of temperament and exchange of abuse, common to lovers in such situations. He behaves with perfect serenity, accepting everything with a smile. Having freed himself from the shackles of material comforts and social respectability he continues his search after reality with an admirable resignation. He travels light, continuously unburdening himself or personal belongings and attachments. He comes to grips with the established religion in the person of a religious father. He is fed up with the Christian concept of Original Sin and fails to cultivate faith in Christianity. This stage of his life is wonderfully summed up by the Father. “You are a deeply religious man who does not believe in God. God will seek you out. You’ll come . Whether here or elsewhere only God can tell”. 10 From the Father he goes direct to India. After a series of strange experiences which prepare him for the ordeal, he goes to the Ashram of Sri Ganesha at the suggestion of one of his Indian friends. Having freed himself from all traces of egoism and selfishness he enters into a trance “of the same order as the mystics have had all over the World through all the centuries”. 11 The words in which he describes his experience reminds us of the accounts of the enlightened. He says: “I had a strange sensation, a tingling that arose in my feet and travelled up my head, and I felt as though I were suddenly released from my body and, as pure spirit, partook a loveliness I had never conceived. I had a sense that a knowledge, more than human, possessed me, so that everything that had been confused was clear, and everything that had perplexed me was explained”. 12

That Maugham has the Katha Upanishad in mind while writing The Razor’s Edge is evident from the title as well as the epigraph of the novel. He seems to be well read in Indian philosophy and his theoretical understanding of the subtle intricacies of Hindu philosophy is far from being ‘superficial’.

He says:

“What I know about it, I have read in books, The most important of these are Sir Charles Eliot’s Hinduism and Buddhism, Radhakrishnan’s History of Indian Philosophy and his translation of the Upanishads; Krishnaswami Iyer’s Vedanta or the Science of Reality; Brahma-knowledge, by Professor Barnett; and Sankara’s Vivekachudamani” 13

The sixth chapter of The Razor’s Edge is a lucid expression of the basic principles of Indian philosophy, The paradoxical statement with which he begins the chapter indicates that Maugham is writing the novel with a purpose and that he is quite serious about what he is saying. He says:

“I feel it right to warn the reader that he can very well skip this chapter without losing the thread of such a story as I have to tell…..I should add, however, that except for this conversation I should perhaps not have thought it worth while to write this book”. 14 So, evidently, the ‘principal purpose’ of Larry dose not end, as David Paul imagines, 15 with the expression of the disillusionment of his generation, Maugham does not simply diagnose, he suggests a cure also.

The story of Nachiketas, the observant boy with a spirit of enquiry, may have appealed to Maugham. The same doubts which haunted Maugham and his Larry had troubled Nachiketas also, Nachiketas said:

“When man dies there is this doubt: Some say, ‘He exists’; some again, ‘He does not’.16

Larry, like Nachiketas, renounces everything and keeps only the ultimate goal in his mind. Both of them were tempted by the pleasure of life, fame and material well-being, and both successfully overcome all temptations. Larry, like Nachiketas, shows an unswerving devotion to his goal and lives up to the Upanishadic ideals, the epigraph of Maugham’s novel.

“Arise, awake and stop not until the goal is reached. Like the sharp edge of a razor is that path, difficult to cross and hard to tread,–so say the wise’. 18

However, this parallel should not be stretched too far. Though Larry found answers to his doubts in Hindu philosophy he knows his limitations. He quickly realises that Hinduism is not merely a philosophy and religion, but a way of life, and these three aspects are inseparable. When asked whether he believes in the doctrine of transmigration of souls as much as the Hindus do, he says:

“I don’t think it’s possible for us Occidentals to believe in it as implicitly as these Orientals do. It’s in their blood and bones. With us it can only be an opinion. I neither believe in it nor disbelieve in it”.19 Similarly, though Maugham was under the spell of Hinduism for sometime he felt that it is no more than an “impressive fantasy”20 with him. But Hinduism, more than any other faith, helps him to face the facts of life, and to evolve some values and also an attitude to life. It helps him to realise that “the greatest ideal man can set before himself is self-perfection”21, leading to sane living. More than this, Hinduism gives him enough of faith and courage to live up to it. As in the case of Larry, it seems to have played a significant part in the formation of Maugham’s own view of life. Maugham said: “If I were to say, in a few words, what I have learned from life, it is to regret nothing. Many of the things which happen to us serve a purpose We cannot see at the time. Many misfortunes have their compensations. Our business is right living.” 22

Apart from facts which served as a basis to form a view of life, Maugham also seems to have derived the necessary vital hint for the creation of Larry. Nachiketas in the Katha Upanishad starts his enquiry after the ultimate reality where he sees through the pretentious piety of his father, the mean motives (love of fame, wealth etc.) behind his great sacrifices. Placing a really intelligent and serious-minded young man in an affluent society Maugham is able to show the futility of civilization, the mean motives behind the much-admired social decency, the ideal of serving the greater community, prestige and high life. He stresses the importance of spiritual progress along with material prosperity and by implication suggests the importance of right living.

Now, the questions–how far is Maugham able to integrate the Hindu philosophical thought into the tenor of his novel? and, does he make an artistic use of the Upanishadic ideal?–force themselves upon us. The very fact that Maugham devoted a separate chapter to Larry’s spiritual achievements, which could be skipped without any violence to the artistic unity of the novel, shows that he failed to make a creative use of the Hindu faith and the Upanishadic ideal. The spiritual evolution of Larry is not shown through an artistic process or medium, it is merely narrated. His spiritual attainments, and assimilation of the Hindu faith, remain only a part of his make-up but not his whole being. He can remain intellectually detached and may give up all his claims for his belongings, but he cannot renounce the world as his Indian friend the Minister of Finance did. Hinduism remains only as a view of life with him, but does not become a way of life.

Therefore, Maugham is successful only in stressing the importance of the Upanishadic message and a sane attitude to life, but he does not show the need for them, like Eliot, with that tremendous artistic immediacy and urgency. He fails to make the society realise what it actually needs, but simply suggests. And, instead of giving what he should give, he gives what it wants, and this he gives with an obstinate defiance “For all the persons with whom I have been concerned got what they wanted….And however superstitiously the highbrows carp, we, the public in our heart of hearts all like a success story.”23 This failure proceeds from Maugham’s incapacity to feel the need for a faith and his want of higher artistic sensibility and creative imagination to make one feel the need with immediacy. His talents enabled him to become a successful author but not a first-rate artist.

1“For it (the chapter in Of Human Bondage) described my own experience and I have no doubt that my reasons for coming to the conclusion I came to were inadequate.” The Summing Up, p-168, Heinemann, 1938.  
2 Klans W. Jonas. The World of Somerset Maugham, Peter Owen, 1956.
3 see The Summing Up, pp. 168 ff. A Writer’s Note Book, pp. 284 ff. The Points of View, pp. 56-96.
4 The Razor’s Edge, Pocket edition, pp. 74.
5 A Writer’s Notebook, pp. 222-246, Heinemann, 1952.
6 Modern Poetry, English Masterpieces Series. ed.Maynard Mack etc., pp. 189
7 The Razor’s Edge, p. 40.
8 Ibid, pp. 54.
9 Dr. S. Radhakrishnan; ed. The Principal Upanishads Katha Upanishad pp. 628.
10 The Razor’s Edge, pp. 285.
11 Ibid, pp. 307.
12 Ibid, p.
13 The Points of View, P.61, Heinemann, 1960.
14 The Razor’s Edge, p. 206.
15 The Maugham Enigma ed. Klans W, Jonas, Peter Owen, p. 162
16 Katha Upanishad, “Yeyam Prete vichikitsa manushya asti tyeke nayam astiti chaike.” ed, Swami Sharvananda, p, 25.
17 See the “first four slokas of Katha Upanishad ed. Dr. S. Radhakrishnan, pp. 607-609.
18 Ibid, p. 628. Uttisbtata jagrata prapya varan nibodhata: Kshurasya dhara nisita duratyaya; durgam patha stat kavayo vadanti. ed. The translation is based on Swami Vivekananda’s well known interpretation.
19 The Razor’s Edge, p. 296.
20 “For while I was attracted to the Hindu conception of that mysterious neuter which is existence...and I should be more inclined to believe in that than in any other God that Human wishes have devised. But I think it no more than an impressive fantasy.” A Writer’s Notebook, p. 292.
21 The Razor’s Edge, p. 313.
22 Karl G. Pfeiffer The Maugham Enigma; ed. Krans W. Jonas, p.
23 The concluding paragraph of The Razor’s Edge.

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