Tuesday, June 23, 2009

June 23rd

Today is the second anniversary of Katie's death, the day when many people lost the central person in their lives. Today is a day for grieving the absence of a beautiful and unique person who inspired friends, family, and colleagues to love themselves, to believe in themselves, to do good work in the world, and to not take life too seriously. Katie was a fair and kind person, and her certainty about the world around her made her a natural leader wherever she went. After her death, so many referred to her as a best friend and as a mentor. Katie also had as clear a sense of the fragility of living as anyone I have ever met. In regular back-and-forth conversations about life, death, and the afterlife, she spoke in certain terms about life offering no guarantees and certainties, how this lack of certainty made life beautiful to her. The scope of Katie's impact in the world, and then of her violent death, alternately mended and tore apart great swaths of our lives' fabric. I can think of, first, no greater tribute, nor, second, of something with which it is so difficult to make peace.

For me, today is also the day that I watched Katie die, and that I was unable to stop her from dying. When I remember publicly June 23rd, 2007, I remember a beautiful day, a ridiculously difficult hike, a magical mountaintop hostel that sold Cokes, and then a short hike across the ridge back from dinner under a beautiful and clear sky. When I remember the day privately, I remember a great deal more. I do not mean to bear the martyr's sack-cloth and walk about the public square wailing and gnashing my teeth, but Katie's death was violent and senseless, and this, still, makes me feel great anger and despair about the indiscriminate potential of the natural world.

Robert Kennedy often spoke of the "inadequacy of human compassion, our lack of sensibility toward the suffering of our fellows." Katie liked to joke that she joined the Peace Corps because she got stuck under a mall speaker playing, on repeat, John Lennon's "Happy XMas (War Is Over)". And yet, from her early life-guarding and camp counseling, to the Peace Corps, to the Greater Chicago Food Depository, to FIU's Public Health school, to her AIDS/HIV and family violence work for IOCC in Romania, Katie consistently chose to work with people in need. It is a part of Katie that we work to keep alive in the world, internationally and locally, through The Katie Memorial Foundation (KMF).

There is an imperfection to the world that makes it hard to live in, from our knowing that whatever joins us does not always keep us together, to our understanding that gestures which become repetitive struggle to feel fresh and vivid. Katie was a real person, and I do my best to remember her as living flesh and blood, full of humanity. I am fortunate to know that she is a spirit in my life, and to believe that her love is a guiding presence in my life, guarding and keeping me, accountable to no human comprehension, only that other imperfect idea that frustrates me so, faith.

Katie would be uncomfortable with so much tribute. I think she would resent that anyone's focus be so backward-looking. Another way to say this is that it's easiest for me to think of Katie, most days, saying about this blog and my writing about our life together, "If you have to do it, do it, just don't think you're doing it for me." If I harden the delivery (and I don't think I do), I've got the message just about right. Katie lived a sometimes difficult life without expectation of restitution or coming glory. She lived, very well, in the present. So it makes sense that, to honor Katie, we live without making her or her death a crutch, that we at least intend to live a beautiful and rich life, and that we be grateful for or make peace with, the life we lead.

I'll close with one of the songs that Katie loved, which reminds me of her, Susan Werner's "Barbed-Wire Boys."

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)

Friday, June 5, 2009

Chapter 5, i-vi (The Razor's Edge)

NOTE: The following blog post references, tastefully, sexual situations that happen in the chapter.  Reader, be warned!  :)

Sophie arrives to Paris, engages our attention, and then disappears, all within the first six sub-sections of Chapter 5.  What we later learn of her, I'll leave aside for now, but simply put, our gang of four find her in a ratty Parisian nightclub, doped up, drunk, and in the company of unsavory, swarthy men, and a few pages later she is struggling to stay clean while engaged to Larry, whom she eventually leaves a few pages after that when she falls off the wagon.  So much plot unfolds throughout Chapter 5.  That plot is difficult to discuss in too much detail, because so much later information in the book changes our perception of these events.  For now, I'll stick to some broader observation:

1. I have read The Razor's Edge, I think, four times before this undertaking, and this is the first time I feel like I've really noticed how sexually-charged the first half of Chapter 5 is, from Sophie's exotic Paris underworld scene, where

"Men danced with podgy boys with made-up eyes; gaunt, hard-featured women danced with fat women with dyed hair; men danced with women...with a solemn intensity in which there was something horrible."

to Isabel's backseat orgasm, driving back to Paris from Chartres, while staring at Larry's tanned arm hair:

"Something in Isabel's immobility attracted my attention, and I glanced at her.  She was so still that you might have thought her hypnotized.  Her breath was hurried.  Her eyes were fixed on the sinewy wrist with its little golden hairs and on that long, delicate, but powerful hand, and I have never seen on a human countenance such a hungry concupiscence as I saw then on hers.  It was a mask of lust.  I would never have believed that her beautiful features could assume an expression of such unbridled sensuality.  It was animal rather than human.  The beauty was stripped from her face; the look upon it made he hideous and frightening.  it horribly suggested the bitch in heat and I felt rather sick.  She was unconscious of my presence; she was conscious of nothing but the hand, lying along the rim so negligently, that filled her with frantic desire.  Then as it were a spasm twitched across her face, she gave a shudder and shutting her eyes sank back into the corner of the car.

'Give me a cigarette,' she said in a voice I hardly recognized, it was so raucous.

I got one out of my case and lit it for her.  She smoked it greedily."

a scene which ends with Isabel cornering Gray such that Maugham says, "I guessed that he would have a passionate bedfellow that night, but would never know to what prickings of conscience he owed her ardor."  What a funny, deliberate and showy noun: prickings!

2.  Sophie MacDonald emerges as a walking trainwreck of a woman, ruined emotionally at about the same time that Gray's father changes his investing strategies (enabling future ruin), Larry sets off for "the East," Isabel's mother gets diabetes, and Elliot moves to the coast.  All four characters' fates are intertwined at about the same starting point.

3.  Unlike Isabel and Gray's retreat to Europe, where they maintain appearances, Sophie's reaction to catastrophe is not to closedown shop and perpetuate her former life, but rather to undertake the self-cure through drug and alcohol abuse, and lots of sleeping around.  So, Sophie immediately seems sympathetic and honest in a way that Isabel and Gray seem caught up in appearances, though, of course, frantically-desireful Isabel is really the one at fault beside  feckless, impotent Gray--whose whole body achieves less wife-ly carnal effect than Larry's shiny wrist--who happily and fatly dawdles along for the ride.

4.  Isabel resents Sophie for her violation of social mores, and finds in her an easy straw-man to bat down again and again.  And yet, Isabel insists that Maugham take all of them on a "tour of the tough joints" that he knows.  So, if are we to think that Isabel knows she'll find some easy humor at these bars, then does it follow that she expects Sophie to turn up?

5.  The collapse of Sophie's hermetic world of husband and child, at the very least, makes us sympathetic to any and all horrible following behavior.  And yet, Sophie asks for no sympathy.  She's resigned to wander from coast to coast, living off her small inheritance.  She doesn't turn to an Uncle Elliot to fix things.  In this way, she's clearly aligned with Larry, who's also content to wander from place to place, and accept circumstances more or less as they present themselves--a distinction that, romantic rivalries aside, must drive Isabel up the wall.

6.  I like this quote from Maugham, "There was a time when the black sheep of the family was sent from my country to America; now apparently he's sent from your country to Europe."

7.  Interesting also that Maugham frames Sophie's husband's death in terms of heaven and hell.  This makes a Christ-like reading of Larry all the more readable in their interaction.  Unfortunately, his desire to rehabilitate her away from the sins of alcohol feels beside the point: the drinking isn't the problem so much as the thing that leads to the drinking which, if left unaddressed, only, perhaps fatally, exacerbates the latter.  I wonder if this reflects 1940s-era thinking about alcohol abuse, or if it's a deliberate plot choice for Maugham.

8.  Of course, it turns out, Sophie is a poet!

9.  Pride emerges as a kind of marker for the novel in this chapter: Larry's healing powers with regards to Sophie; Isabel's certainty of her claim on Larry's virginity; Elliot's belief that his existence is vital and necessary to the world; Isabel's certainty that women who go "to pieces...can never get back."  Again, Maugham uses a throwaway scene--his conversation with Isabel following Larry's engagement to Sophie--to reinforce his thinking here, and to make more explicit her Mary Magdalen-Christ dynamic with Larry:

"The devil was sly and he came to Jesus once more and said: If thou wilt accept shame and disgrace, scourging, a crown of thorns and death on the cross thou shalt save the human race, for greater love hath no man that this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.  jesus fell.  The devil laughed til his sides ached, for he knew the evil men would commit in the name of their redeemer."

10.  Maugham has the final world on Isabel ("Come off it, Isabel.  You gave [Larry] up for a square-cut diamond and a sable coat."), but, as we know, Isabel is not a woman to lose at much of anything, at least not on her own terms.