Cuyahoga River

Cuyahoga River
Cuyahoga River in the Valley

Saturday, October 27, 2012

The Razor's Edge - A Lesson for Us All

I suggested reading The Razor’s Edge by W. Somerset Maugham to book group, but they wouldn’t think of it.  Their loss.  The book was narrated by a writer who seemed to have an “in” with everyone who had money, kind of a fly on the wall, watching the rich and connected people he knows and settling on Larry, whose ambition is “The acquisition of knowledge.” Larry’s a sage, the guy with all the answers, and I think that was Maugham’s meaning. But we’re never sure what he’s looking for, sometimes it seems to be God, sometimes something else, while he just says he’s doing nothing. He could be contrasted with Isabel and with her Uncle Elliott who is always introducing people, convinced it’s important. We get a rare soliloquy halfway through the book. “Pascal said that the heart has no reasons that reason takes no account of. If he meant what I think, he meant that when passion seizes the heart it invents reasons that were not only plausible but conclusive to prove that the world is well lost for love . . . It may be then that one is faced with the desolation of knowing that one has wasted the years of one’s life, that one’s brought disgrace upon oneself, endured the frightful pan of jealousy, swallowed every bitter mortification, that one’s expended all one’s tenderness, poured out all the riches of one’s soul on a poor drab, a fool, a peg on which one hung one’s dreams, who wasn’t worth a stick of chewing gum” But Isabel isn’t listening.

Larry is thinking of the Absolute. “It is eternal because of its completeness and perfection are unrelated to time. It is truth and freedom.” It is not the personal God that mankind usually seeks. “I myself think that the need to worship is no more than the survival of an old remembrance of cruel gods that had to be propitiated. I believe that God is within me or nowhere. If that’s so, whom or what am I to worship—myself?” He’s encountered Brahma, Vishnu, Siva, and they’re all the same, the Absolute. He found a Guru who “taught that we are all grater than we know and that wisdom is the means to freedom. He taught that it is not essential to salvation to retire from the world, but only to renounce the self. He taught that work done with no selfish interest purifies the mind and that duties are opportunities afforded to man to sink his separate self and become one with the universal self.” The narrator concludes that “I am of the earth, earthy; I can only admire the radiance of such a rare creature . . . Larry has been absorbed, as he wished, into that tumultuous conglomeration of humanity, distracted by so many conflicting interests, so lost in the world’s confusion, so wishful of good, so cocksure of the outside, so diffident within, so kind, so hard, so trustful, and so cagey, so mean and so generous, which is the people of the United States." Of all the characters in the book, only Larry achieved happiness. “And however superciliously the highbrows carp, we the public in our heart of hearts all like a success story; so perhaps my ending is not so unsatisfactory after all.”

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