Friday, June 12, 2009

Chapter 5 (vii-ix) and Chapter 6 (i-vii)

If our construction of the afterlife is structured by our experience of the mortal world, then we, as readers, can forgive Elliott his certainty that heaven bears out certain "class distinctions" of serpahim, cherubim, archangels, and angels.  Picking up on Marcus's comment, to see Larry's generous substitution of invitations as generating sympathy for, and pathos towards, Elliott, I'll add that Elliott has a consistent worldview of how things are, and should be, and so is pretty threatened when that worldview doesn't play out.  Heaven may prove a mixed bag, indeed, so here's hoping the crossing over, at least, goes smoothly.  

I feel a good deal of ambivalence, however about this passage from 5.9:

"An old, kind friend.  It made me sad to think how silly, useless and trivial his life had been.  It mattered very little now that he had gone to so many parties and had hobnobbed with all those princes, dukes, and counts.  They had forgotten him already."

I like that Maugham suggests the reader might skip Chapter 6, "since for the most part it is nothing more than the account of a conversation that I had with Larry," and how he immediately adds, "...except for this conversation, I should perhaps not have thought it worth while to write this book."

Isabel and Gray inherit most of Elliot's fortune, and in doing so, seal off again the hermetic seal that is their world.  Their daughters are attractive and curious, and so seem set upon Isabel's path, and it is there that Maugham loses interest in their story for the chapter.  Instead, by chance, he meets Larry, they have dinner, and over the course of an evening, Larry fills in the backstory and explains, with great reference, the philosophy he's been undertaking.  Seduced by Larry's openness and charm, Maugham reveals much of his own thinking about the world, religion, and cultures; for a character we've understood mostly through tone, to this point, it's a welcome opening up.

I don't know the best way to parse this part of the novel, except to point out passages that I particularly like.  So, here goes:

"I'd known that men had been killed by the hundred thousand, but I hadn't seen them killed.  It didn't mean very much to me.  Then I saw a dead man with my own eyes.  The sight filled me with shame...because that boy, he was only three or four years older than me, who'd had such energy and daring, who a moment before had had so much vitality, who'd been so good, was now just mangled flesh that looked as if it had never been alive." (Larry, explaining his reaction to the death of Patsy)

"'Our wise old Church,' he said then, 'has discovered that if you will act as if you believed belief will be granted to you; if you pray with doubt, but pray with sincerity, your doubt will be dispelled; if you will surrender yourself to the beauty of that liturgy the power of which over the human spirit has been proved by the experience of the ages, peace will descend upon you." (Father Ensheim, appealing to Larry to join his monastery, after leaving Bonn)

"'A god that can be understood is no God.  Who can explain the Infinite in words?'" (Larry, starting to discuss Hinduism with Maugham)

"'But how can a purely intellectual conception be a solace to the suffering human race?  Men have always wanted a personal God to whom they can turn in their distress for comfort and encouragement.'

'It may be that at some far distant day greater insight will show them that they must look for comfort and encouragement in their own souls.  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?...The multitudinous gods of India are but expedients to lead to the realization that the self is one with the supreme self."
 (Larry and Maugham, discussion Hinduism)

1 comment:

Marcus said...

At this stage of the reading process I lost track of the exact chapter subdivisions I was reading. :)

In this section Elliott dies, deeply saddening Maugham. His desire to be buried with pomp and circumstance doesn't seem particularly Christian, but does seem very Elliott. I am glad that Maugham accommodates it.

Part 6 begins with the hilarious disclaimer John's already noted. It is indeed the crux of the story. I found Larry's desire to be an ascetic in the US frustrating more than inspiring, leaving me to wonder if it was time to hone my own spiritual nature.