Somerset Maugham’s The Razor’s Edge. I only remembered one character–from reading it in 1987. Larry, of course: the young mid-western orphan who throws over the well-settled upper-class life that opens before him, in favor of a decade of wandering through Europe and India, and then embraces an un-celebrated lifetime of living with “calmness, forbearance, compassion, selflessness, and continence.”
I discovered by re-reading the novel that it offers other characters who attract my now-middle-aged interest even more than Larry. The aging Chicagoan turned French-Riviera socialite Elliot, who comes out of the stock market crash of 1929 unscathed, owing to the good advice of a Vatican contact of his, who warned of impending doom just in the nick of time. And the narrator himself, who steals the show with his patience and loyalty—far surpassing the virtues of the putative protagonist Larry, his ashram-induced experience of “illumination” notwithstanding.
In 1987, The Razor’s Edge certainly gave my young mind a perspective on the world that I never want to lose. Beyond the edge of what I know, outside the realm where people talk like me, a vast expanse of uncharted human living opens up. To explore it, I must 1) sacrifice comfort and 2) listen. In exchange I receive: enchantment, and a bigger soul.
Also: Maugham produced a literary masterpiece. He wrote precisely what he needed to write, precisely as he needed to write it, to give us what he intended to give. The dialogue limps along woodenly at times. But Maugham’s eye for atmospheric detail—the fruit of his encyclopedic knowledge of the decorative arts—more than makes up for prosaic dialogue. The characters in this novel ravish the imagination with as much believability as any a reader will ever find. Isabel above all, I think: the lovely debutante who grows into a satisfied socialite and doting mother, with one crushing regret. She does not win the reader’s esteem, but she certainly got my affection.
Now, turning to the central ideas of this novel of ideas…The movie to put alongside it, for my money, would have to be The Darjeeling Limited. The Razor’s Edge, light on its feet as it is about everything else, clangs along with a doltishly credulous reverence for Hindu holiness. Contrast the hushed admiration of Maugham with the bumbling slapstick of Owen Wilcox’s trips to various Indian shrines in the movie. I think Maugham would have to laugh at his own dowdiness if he could see how evisceratingly The Darjeeling Limited lampoons the idea that Indian holy men are any less ridiculous than anybody else.
Anyway, what I really want to discuss is the passage of The Razor’s Edge in which Larry dismisses the Sacred Liturgy of the Church as nonsensical. He has spent some months living in a German monastery, only to conclude:
The monks told me that God had created the world for his glorification. That didn’t seem to me a very worthy object. Did Beethoven create his symphonies for his glorification? I don’t believe it. I couldn’t believe that God wanted to be praised to his face.
Larry then proceeds to dismiss the Our Father as an unnecessary prayer and to criticize the monks for having overly sensitive consciences.
Certainly the lamest and most facile passage of the novel. When Larry narrates his experiences of “illumination,” as he watches the sun rise over the Himalayas on his birthday—that passage sounds pretty lame to me, too. But not as lame as what he said about the Sacred Liturgy of the Church.
That God would not will us to praise Him, regularly, according to a form which He Himself has prescribed—that only naifs of an earlier “fundamentalist” age could think of God willing that—that our experience of “religious pluralism,” which we cultured moderns now have, has cured us of such suffocating notions: this is a point-of-view very much at-large in our time. The Razor’s Edge communicates this point-of-view as artfully as any other attempt to communicate it that I have come across.
So why is this idea so profoundly wrong? So laughably self-contradictory?
India supposedly taught Larry (I think it is safe to summarize): the Absolute is unknowable. Ok. Can’t argue with that.
But: Doesn’t the truth that God is unknowable actually mean:
1. God may very well have created the universe for His glory. And His doing so can in no way incur our moral censure. Because God is God and not man. If Beethoven wrote his symphonies for his own—Beethoven’s—glory, then we would rightfully think him an unworthy genius. But Beethoven could have, and with credit, written his symphonies for God’s glory. After all, aren’t the most beautiful symphonies really simple lives lived with clear eyes for God’s glory?
To glorify God is actually the one thing that a human being can do which is not ultimately self-centered and small. God’s willing all things for His own glory—yes, stupendously Self-centered—is in no way small. He, after all, is God.
To fall into the error of anthropomorphizing God in such a way that we would condemn Him for self-centeredness because the universe exists for His glory: that is a colossal sin against the all-hallowed idea that God is unknowable. God is unknowable. Therefore, I cannot judge Him like a human being who I believe has grown too big for his own britches.
2. God is unknowable. Therefore, He just as easily could have prescribed a precise form of regular praise for us to offer Him, as not. His being unknowable means that it is no less likely that He would do that than that He wouldn’t. An unknowable God is perfectly capable of prescribing a Sacred Liturgy.
And, unknowable as He is, He could do it out of genuine love for us, knowing that the best and worthiest thing for us to do—the thing that gets us standing on our best feet, so to speak—the most worthy human activity of all is: the praise of God, according to the divinely prescribed rites.
Certainly: any rites which do not respect the absolute unknowability of God—trash ‘em.
But: Rites that 1) respect the fundamental mysteriousness of God, and 2) have a solid claim on having come from the direction of God Himself, duly mediated by men who received divine instruction—well, what fool wouldn’t celebrate such rites, according to the rules as given? What swami, really, who had studied the rites of the Catholic Church, and had thoroughly investigated the claim that God Himself instituted them—what honest swami, under such circumstances, would hesitate to celebrate the Sacred Liturgy?
So: the idea of walking away from the Sacred Liturgy of the Catholic Church—which of all the world’s cults most truly respects the absolute authority of the inscrutable God—the idea of walking away from such a liturgy, in search of some religion that more genuinely comprehends the grandeur of the Infinite? Please. Dumb. Not sophisticated. Not cosmopolitan. Not broad-minded.
Free-thinking, free-walking, dreamy Larry did not have the openness, did not have the spiritual illumination to see that he had, in fact, managed to miss the meaning of life. Selflessness, calm, patient forbearance, self-control—yes, these are the moral goals of a good person,* and they help you to be happy, which Maugham celebrates Larry as truly being.
But the moral goals of the good person do not, in fact, penetrate to the genuinely fundamental meaning of life. If I might, dear reader, allow me to channel my own inner Larry and quote from a retreat journal I kept during an extended period of silence in the summer of 1993: “All things are done to glorify God.”
If I could claim that the moment when I wrote that involved my “illumination”—without laughing at the utter ridiculousness of such a statement—then I would. But, illumination-shumination, it is nonetheless true. Our lives have meaning when we live them for the glory of God. (Who has prescribed a Sacred Liturgy of praise–and if you want to know what it is, the thing to do is to study the rites of the Catholic Church.)
So thank you, Lord—and thank you, Somerset Maugham—for the excellent read, which I was sorry to come to the end of, for the second time.
* Larry, to his enormous credit, having spent a lot of his twenties as something of a sexual libertine, does have the humility to acknowledge: “In nothing are the wise men of India more dead right than in their contention that chastity intensely enhances the power of the spirit.”