The Razor’s Edge: A Collection of Unlikely Philosophers

I recently reread W. Somerset Maugham’s The Razor’s Edge, and this time, I truly understood what makes it a classic and a work of genius, despite its evident flaws. The book is, at its core, the story of a group of friends and a couple of relatives (as told by a rather elusive narrator) whose primary concern centers around the seemingly aimless Larry Darrell whose primary is “to loaf.” However, his loafing also includes a spiritual quest to find a greater meaning in life than being invited to elegant parties, making lots of money, having a lucrative job, or marriage. He is the object of, first, ridicule, then great worry, as his spiritual quest seems to lead to an apathy for the more pragmatic and necessary matters of life. Larry also appears unable to form deep attachments with people, probably the result of the early loss of his parents coupled with his experiences in the First World War, where he saw death all around him and his dear friend killed. It was Larry’s quest that jumped out at me most profoundly the first time I read the book; however, this time, I was able to better understand that all of the characters are on some sort of quest of their own, however mundane and non-spiritual. It is not so easy to pass judgment on the other characters or to laud only Larry for being more “deep” than the others. For the sake of argument, I present some additional perspectives.

Larry cannot stand the bourgeois—-no, that is not the proper word, for the characters are from the elite upper classes—-moneyed, convention-driven atmosphere of his social circles. His friends are not necessarily old money, but they are not necessarily nouveau riche either. The adults’ goals are to see their children married well and prosperously settled; this is as much for maintaining a lifestyle as it is for social image. Larry is engaged to the beautiful and desired Isabel, who at first glance seems to be merely a bubbly socialite. But Larry’s desire to loaf and not have a concrete goal that he is striving towards is his ultimate downfall: Isabel’s eyes, a man must have a sense of direction with regard to his work in order for a marriage to work.

Isabel is, indeed, a woman who desires money and position, but her desires are not based on merely following convention. She has thought through her point of view, her *philosophy* of marriage, even (if one can indulge in that word) and has made up her mind to break off her engagement to Larry. This is absolutely heartbreaking to Isabel and, to some degree, Larry. We see that Isabel is not shallow, though her choices may seem to be; this is evidenced in long passages with the narrator (a sort of doppelgänger for Maugham himself) in which she discusses her concerns in detail. She thinks through things and has her reasons for doing what others might regard as selfish, but she tries as best as she can to understand Larry. If she cannot truly understand him, then she is at least sympathetic. Letting him go is not easy for her, but she is wise enough to realize that he has a particular quest. She is a stronger woman than the reader may realize.

Isabel is by nature curious, and even mildly reflective. She wants to talk to the narrator about her decisions. She wants to go “slumming” to see the seedy nightlife of Paris, so as not to be stuck in her usual circles, but unfortunately this decision the puts another woman in Larry’s life. She is the counterpart to Larry the Philosopher: where Larry questions and then chooses to remain abstract, unattached, and searching, Isabel questions and then chooses that which is concrete, connected, and certain. Her marriage to Gray Maturin is fundamentally a successful one, though she is still madly in love with Larry. Even her motives, as explained to the narrator at the end, for preventing the marriage of Larry and Sophie are carefully thought out; she made a decision to destroy one person (Sophie) in order to save another person (Larry) in the long run.

Elliott, Isabel’s uncle, is undoubtedly the most snobby and shallow individual in the book. His self-worth is based on the approval of others in the upper echelons of society. He lives or dies for invitations to swanky soirées, has very particular opinions on romantic matches and marriages, and spends lavishly on homes and clothes. He passes judgment harshly on others, and seems to rather loathe himself. And yet, at his core, he is a good ol’ Midwestern boy who is close to his family and wants the best for them. When Isabel and Gray suffer from the stock market crash, he sets up a new life for them in Paris. He is continually trying to introduce those close to him into high society for their benefit, in order to foster their social mobility. Elliott is an unabashed social climber—-he makes no bones about it. His ultimate goal is to be recognized by society and by the church. Though he ultimately felt that the former, he succeeds at the latter.

One last example of unlikely philosophers is Gray Maturin and his father Henry. Henry loses his fortune due to his innate nobility: as Maugham writes, “instead of letting [his clients] take a loss, he supported their accounts out of his own pocket… he could never hold up his head again if the little people who trusted him lost their all.” Shortly after, he dies. Gray takes over the business, tries to make good, but he also suffers. Depressed and suffering from debilitating headaches, he still remains the ever-devoted, loving husband and father. He appreciates the beauty of nature, as Isabel describes one such scene when they were out at their plantation, and is overall the most kindhearted character in the book, as we only see his goodness (and his bulk!) described throughout. He is open to healing, as Larry teaches him to cure himself of his headaches. In the end, Gray is eager to return to America and to get back to work. He is always glad to see Larry, his old childhood friend, even though his wife has always desired him and was once engaged to him. We never see Gray’s motives and we seldom hear him speak in the novel, but we are left with the impression that he is a man of integrity, a good heart, and character. He, too, has made certain choices as to how to live his life, and generally seems to be at peace with them.

These are but a few examples of the philosophical threads that flow through this flawed yet brilliantly insightful novel. The true signs of a classic, in my opinion, include tremendous insight into human nature, the ability to view and analyze the work from a multiplicity of points of view and analyze (gender, class, social commentary, philosophy, etc.), and to find new meaning in it when read at different stages in one’s life. We need more novels like this, that get us to think about the fundamental questions of human nature and how we choose our life philosophies.

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The Artist in America

If the “business of America is business,” as has been so famously said about this nation, then it is no wonder that artists do not feature in the general vocabulary and Zeitgeist in our culture. Artists are seen as something peripheral, errant, irresponsible. Art is something to be done “on the side,” for it is rare to find the artist who makes his or her living through his or her craft. Artists feature among the uninsured in this country, or the underinsured, because certainly there must be a high risk for a self-employed with paint artist who stands in front of a canvas all day (note sarcasm here). The National Endowment for the Arts seems to be in a perpetual state of doom due to spending cuts as well as censors who fear the visual portrayal of depravity. Certainly, there are fellowships and MacArthur awards and grants given to creative folk, but generally these do not sustain the artist, who must seek funds from multiple sources or undesirable jobs. And yet, oddly, we have one of the finest museums in the world—-the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York—-and stunning collections in equally stunning museums and private collections around the country. Many museums were really founded upon a given collection by a wealthy individual or family. And given our ethnic and social diversity, we have probably the widest range of types of art on display and for sale in the United States. Want to invest in modern Native American? Check. John Singer Sargent portraits? Check. An installation of gigantic slabs of metal by Richard Serra? Check. You want it, we got it. And how many millions of people around the world own an iconic silver laptop or iPod with that familiar white fruit logo? Don’t forget—-it’s as American as Apple!

But we must go further and examine the mentality of our culture and why art, artistry, and aesthetics are not part of our daily vocabulary. Even people who are well educated and prosperous might simply be too pragmatic to appreciate that which is abstract and inexplicable. It doesn’t “make sense” to many people, it is “too emotional,” or, worst of all, “weird.” We do not come from a culture where there was an Oscar Wilde in our past, or huge movements in our daily culture that supported aestheticism and beauty. “Art for art’s sake” seems like a wasteful mentality to our practical, Anglo-Saxon values. Writing a folk song about a flower might seem “sappy,” and in no other country can you actually buy clothing from a category called “business attire.” Everything has to serve a purpose, because time is money, and marketing studies have calculated every last color detail down to the Pantone wheel as to what will sell best. In a culture that is so calculated and precise, there is very little room for the imprecise, the imaginative, the dreamy, or the ephemeral. When we have so many social problems and inequalities to solve—-very necessary tasks, indeed—-how can we afford the luxury of artistic pleasure?

America, since its inception, has valued a sense of justice, fairness, intelligence, hard work, equality, individualism, optimism, efficiency, and wealth. And ironically, those qualities are what can make a great artist. The artist needs the drive to succeed, the discipline to work hard, a uniqueness of vision, the funds to obtain the materials, and the boldness to ask the world for the compensation he or she deserves, is due. And the artist also needs supporters of the arts, in audiences, visitors to galleries, and scholars like Maxine Greene or Camille Paglia who bridge the gap between thought and the arts. We need the Steve Jobses and David Kelleys of America to link stunning form with necessary function.

And most of all, we need children. We need the child in each of us, the child that still exists even in the most boring office worker in his or her cubicle, the child that once experienced such joy in dipping a brush in red tempera paint, mushing Play-Doh between her hands, or spending hours hunched over a notebook with a pencil in his hand. We need to encourage everyone to keep the creative child as a part of our lives, and to express that naturally art-loving side of ourselves, especially as the world becomes more and more technology-oriented. To quote the inimitable Oscar Wilde, “Art is the only serious thing in the world.” If only more people lived that philosophy.