Here is my take on a classic novel about personal transformation along with some intriguing exploration of paradigms, human perception, and frames of reference.
First, this blurb…
Thanks so much for putting this into words. It is the most concise and accurate analysis of this work that I have ever read. The Razor’s Edge has been my favorite book for many years. I re-read it often. And now I will be able to look at it with a fresh eye again.
Thank you. Terrific work.
–Jack Randall Earles, playwright
Top Executive Coach Tony Mayo’s essay on
The Razor’s Edge
by W. Somerset Maugham
The Razor’s Edge is often described as the story of Larry, a war veteran who forsakes a comfortable life in Chicago “society” for a vague spiritual quest. It is better appreciated as a portrait of his acquaintances, whose conventional lifestyles are starkly contrasted to the path walked by the seeker. Some readers have wished to know more of Larry and criticize the space and attention Maugham lavished upon the “ancillary” characters. Instead, The Razor’s Edge illuminates the spiritual path by focusing on people more like the typical reader, people who do not give up materialistic Western striving. The best way to see Larry is to look at what he is not.
This narrative technique succeeds wonderfully in the masterful hands of author W. Somerset Maugham, best known for Of Human Bondage. Rather than simply lay out the details of Larry’s explorations and development, which, being spiritual and internal, would be rather dull to watch, Maugham reveals Larry by dissecting the contrasting behavior of his associates.
The Positive Aspects of Negative Space
This reminds me of the artist’s exercise of drawing “negative space” instead of the object itself. By carefully sketching only those parts of the background visible around the figure one creates a suggestive impression of the subject entirely by showing precisely where and what it is not. Betty Edwards describes the method in her masterwork, Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain: A Course in Enhancing Creativity and Artistic Confidence.
Usually, it takes years of training to convince students, in the way experienced artists are convinced, that the negative spaces, bounded by the format, require the same degree of attention and care that the positive forms require. Beginning students generally lavish all their attention on the objects, persons, or forms in their drawings, and then sort of ‘fill in the background.’
It may seem hard to believe at this moment, but if care and attention are lavished on the negative spaces, the forms will take care of themselves.
This slippery and hard to verbalize way of seeing is explored in fascinating and infuriating detail in Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid by Douglas Hofstadter, particularly Chapter 3, Figure and Ground. Figure and ground shift places and slip away in his examples and both are exposed as arbitrary and unreliable interpretations of experience. Many of M. C. Escher’s drawings also play with this often overlooked aspect of consciousness, as in his Mosaic II, where the figure of the elephant is the ground of a fish. Or is the figure of fish the ground of a bird?
See also Martin Heidegger, “God is present only through his absence,” (Erläuterungen zu Hölderlins Dichtung, pp. 170–171), and the apparent, “absence of the hidden fullness.” (Vorträge und Aufsätze, p. 185)
Maugham lavishes narrative care and attention less on the figure of Larry the seeker, but on his ground, those who embraced the life of conventional society without a thought for spirituality. Maugham shows us several possible outcomes of such an unexamined life, from the indulgent businessman to the fragile social climber to the dissolute substance abuser. The contrasts are drawn realistically and without sermon yet are no less stark for the subtlety of their presentation. These characters are a rare delight: fictional creations with genuine life, who make choices, have unpredictable effects on one another and grow as the novel develops. Maugham shows how each suffers in their particular ways, for hell is not a physical place but a denial of one’s relationship with God.
This narrative technique of exploring the “Negative Space” around a character is entirely consistent with the book’s subject matter of eastern mysticism. Some readers find the narrative pace slow or the sidelights distracting, but those complaints arise from the attitude of “grasping” that Buddha cautioned against. To understand the seeker’s experience by watching his actions is like trying to capture the moon by grabbing at its reflection in the water. One ultimately learns more about Larry by examining the society he spurned than by trying to comprehend exactly what the seeker embraced, which is anyway intangible and ineffable. The Tao which can be spoken is not the true Tao or, as Maugham has one of his characters put it, “Who can explain the infinite in words?” Enlightenment is not a characteristic of the self but a recognition of the self’s relationship with the infinite. Life’s key action is not in the person but in their relationships, for what defines anything except that which distinguishes it from everything else, i.e., its relationship with its background?
Relationship as the key to comprehension occurs again in physics, with simple notions like voltage as well as complex conceptions like sub-atomic particles. Electricians and physicists talk of voltage as if it were a discrete entity, or foreground figure, existing by itself, yet voltage is in fact a measure of a relationship. An engineer will sometimes refer the voltage “at a point” in a circuit but voltages never exist at one point. Voltage means the difference in electrical potential between a point and the ground (there’s that word again!) of a circuit.
To purchase through Amazon.com, click here.
For more about the 1946 film version with Tyrone Power which Maugham participated in, click here.
For the very different film Bill Murray made in 1984, click here.
For audio version on cassette, click here.
The more deeply one explores physics, the more the language of discrete figures fails and the more one must look at the gaps, contrasts, and relationships to find useful information. Electrons, photons, and quarks mystified physicists using the Newtonian rules of motion for objects. Only when the quantum-relativistic concepts were developed early in the twentieth century did the behavior of subatomic particles become comprehensible. Now physicists regard the building blocks of matter not as particles but as measurable differences from their backgrounds, making a photon not a tangible packet but an artifact of its relationships. This paradigm shift lead many brilliant physicists not only to powerful new scientific theories but also to the ancient cosmologies of Asia. This fabulous reunion is beautifully explored by physicist Fritjof Capra in The Tao of Physics: An Exploration of the Parallels Between Modern Physics and Eastern Mysticism.
…it’s all so cruel and so meaningless. It’s hard not to ask yourself what life is all about and whether there’s any sense to it or whether it’s all a tragic blunder of blind fate.
The wisdom and power available from looking not just at surface details (and thereby being deluded into dealing only with superficial objects) have been known and taught in Asia for centuries but their application in Western behavior is still blossoming. The existentialist philosophers, especially Sartre, in, Being and Nothingness: A Phenomenological Essay on Ontology, wrote of objectité and alienation, that is: the treatment of persons as figures isolated from their ground, unable to form living relationships but constricted by their specific characteristics as objects. A person related to as a fixed object with set characteristics experiences a loss of freedom, as did Larry’s finance Isabel when she rejected the spiritual path with the words, “I’m just an ordinary, normal girl. I’m twenty, in ten years I shall be old, I want to have a good time while I have the chance.” [Page 77]
Isabel has a fixed notion of what she is, and therefore of what she can become. Once we see ourselves as a particular object with a specific character, our freedom disappears. We have entered the realm of facticity and closed off possibility.
To call Larry a “shell-shocked veteran” or “bright young man in Chicago society” limits him and his actions. Larry refuses to objectify himself and is able instead to follow the path of the seeker, even without knowing what he seeks or rejecting what he has had. He is at the ideal state for a student: perfect as he is yet willing to grow, on the way, and nothing is wrong. An escapee from facticity at play in possibility.
The power and flexibility of relating to oneself as a network of malleable relationships instead of as an object with fixed characteristics and a predictable future are why one of the three key principles of our executive training is “Be Transitive.” Larry beautifully expresses all three MayoGenuine principles: Be Genuine, Be Transitive, Be Learning.
He is genuine, always learning, and clear that he is not a fixed quantity but a network of evolving relationships with people, possessions, and the infinite. In short, he is fully alive.
If Maugham had told us the story of Larry without the contrast of his conventional friends, the novel’s entire message would have been lost. Ancient mystics, quantum physicists, and existentialist philosophers are all giving us that same message. Neither figure nor ground is the thing itself, nor even both together. There is no “thing” at all, except as we create it in our minds. It is the relationship between figure and ground that gives rise to an experience, and neither can exist without the other. Take away the ground and there is no boundary for the figure, take away the figure and the ground is meaningless. Each is relative to the other and neither stands alone. Within the figure of Escher’s fish are eyes, but now the eyes are figure and the fish ground. What are the details of any figure, except another relationship between a figure and its ground? The edge is where the relationships emerge, where experiences occur, where reality manifests. The Razor’s Edge.
Page references are to the Penguin softcover edition. Items enclosed in brackets are paraphrases or commentary by Tony Mayo.
p. 52 ‘I don’t think I shall ever find peace till I make up my mind about things,’ he said gravely. He hesitated, ‘It’s very difficult to put into words. The moment you try to, you feel embarrassed. You say to yourself: “Who am I that I should bother my head about this, that, and the other? Perhaps it’s only because I’m a conceited prig. Wouldn’t it be better to follow the beaten track and let what’s coming to you come? And then you think of a fellow who an hour before was full of life and fun, and he’s lying dead; it’s all so cruel and so meaningless. It’s hard not to ask yourself what life is all about and whether there’s any sense to it or whether it’s all a tragic blunder of blind fate.’
p. 77 Larry: “I wish I could make you see how much fuller the life I offer is than anything you have a conception of. I wish I could you see how exciting the life of the spirit is and how rich experience. It’s illimitable. It’s such a happy life. There’s one thing like it, when you’re up in a plane by yourself, high, and only infinity surrounds you. You’re intoxicated! The boundless space. You feel such a sense of exhilaration you wouldn’t exchange it for all the power and glory in the world. I was reading Descartes the other day. The ease, the grace, the lucidity. Gosh!”
Isabel: I’m just an ordinary, normal girl. I’m twenty, in ten years I shall be old, I want to have a good time while I have the chance.
p. 91 Narrator: “What I’m trying to tell you is that there are men who are possessed by an urge to do some particular thing so strong that they can’t help themselves, they’ve got to do it. They’re prepared to sacrifice everything to satisfy their yearning.” …
“They reckon ill who leave me out;
When me they fly, I am the wings;
I am the doubter and the doubt,
And I the hymn the Brahmin sings.”
[From ‘Brahma’ by Ralph Waldo Emerson]
p. 264 Larry: “I should have thought it would interest you. Can there be anything more stupendous than the conception that the universe has no beginning and no end, but passes everlastingly from growth to equilibrium, from equilibrium to decline, from decline to dissolution, from dissolution to growth, and so on to all eternity?”
Narrator: “And what do the Hindus think is the object of this endless recurrence?”
Larry: “I think they’d say that such is the nature of the Absolute.”
See also this blog’s posts on spirituality.