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Religion and Catholicism in The Razor's Edge

...the Wanderling

William Somerset Maugham (1874-1965), in his 1943 novel The Razor's Edge, has a character named Sophie Macdonald. In one of the movie versions of Maugham's novel, Sophie's husband and baby are killed in an automobile accident, and Sophie is taken to a hospital operated by Catholic nuns. As part of the hospital scene, Sophie, who has just returned to consciousness, and who has just learned about the full extent of the tragedy, is confronted by a fresh-faced young nun who tells Sophie that everything is really all right because her dead husband and baby are in heaven with God. Instead of being comforted, however, Sophie flies into a rage, condemning the young nun as a completely unfeeling and vacuous woman; not a real woman at all, but some sort of shell and shabby façade.

As a good novelist, Maugham knew better than to include such an implausible scene in his work. As any counselor knows, even one just starting out, talking philosophy and theology to someone who is in a highly excited and distraught emotional state is bound to be counter-productive. What Sophie needed just then was physical contact with another warm human being overflowing with sympathy and concern. Hugs and kisses were required, not Hegel and Kierkegaard. Even a young nun would have known that. And Maugham, as an experienced observer of human nature, would have known that she would have known it.

Nevertheless, there is a place in religion for philosophy, and even theology, and on occasion a hospital room may be a proper place for a calm rational discussion of the ins and outs of religious beliefs and practices. Maugham, in his own way, even though a naturalistic fatalist in most things, was a sort of religious writer. In any event, he was pushing a certain world-view. Nevertheless, even though he was not a philosopher or a theologian, there was not too much that he missed of a somewhat less obvious and more subtle nature. One of his main concerns, for instance, was with the presence or absence of divine providence in human lives.

Another one of the characters in the novel, Elliott Templeton, is described by Maugham as having converted from being an Episcopalian to being a Roman Catholic, apparently for very superficial reasons. The main reason seems to have been the feeling of continuity he got by being connected with a church that was both contemporary and ancient. The same passionate romanticism which drove him to accept as friends and acquaintances weedy little French dukes and not-so-glamorous and not-so-elegant ladies of any nationality whatsoever, also led him into the Church of Rome. After all, if one is going to be a romantic, why not do a complete job of it?

His new devotion soon paid off in a major way. While visiting the Vatican in September of 1929 he was told by some very reliable inside sources that there was soon going to be a great fall in the American stock market. Elliott didn't hesitate for a moment; he sold all his stocks and bought gold.

As a result, not only didn't he lose money in the crash of October 1929, he actually made quite a bit more on gold. Moreover, he was soon able to buy back all the shares of stock he had sold at only a small fraction of their pre-crash cost. Elliott was so overjoyed and thankful for his good fortune that he built a Romanesque (what else?) church in the middle of the newly drained Pontine Marshes. As Elliott explains the situation to Maugham, "since I owed it all to what I can only describe as the direct interposition of Providence I felt it only right and proper that I should do something for Providence in return."1

Maugham himself didn't think very much of such feelings and intuitions. As he says later, as part of a scene in which he and Elliott's niece Isabel Bradley are discussing love, love is a passion which thrives not on satisfaction but on impediments. It provides an excuse for inventing imaginary reasons for things and fictitious worlds in which the lovers can live out their fantasies. In comparison to this lover's world of passions, the real world counts for nothing. In Maugham's own words: "Passion doesn't count the cost. Pascal said that the heart has its reasons that reason takes no account of. If he meant what I think, he meant that when passion seizes the heart it invents reasons that seem not only plausible but conclusive to prove that the world is well lost for love."2

A little later, when commenting upon Isabel's intuition that Larry Darrell, the novel's main character, was still a virgin, Maugham tells the reader that "I have never believed very much in women's intuition; it fits in too neatly with what they want to believe to persuade me that it is trustworthy; and as I thought of the end of my long talk with Isabel I couldn't but laugh."3

Exactly what is he laughing at? I think it is the way people imagine themselves to be completely free agents and masters of their own destinies. Later in the novel, Maugham once again brings up an aspect of Pascal's thought, although Pascal is not mentioned by name. As an answer to a possible rebuttal to his Wager Argument for the reasonableness of believing in the existence and nature of God as described in the Bible, Pascal mentions what we today would refer to as a form of psychosomatic behavior modification.

Assuming that someone is rationally convinced by Pascal's Wager Argument, the problem of his or her emotional and psychological conviction would still remain. "I fully accept the fact that a truly reasonable person is bound to believe in God," someone might say <after> being intellectually persuaded that such is indeed the case, "but I still don't deeply <feel> the <presence> of God, and I cannot seem to work myself up emotionally so as to delight in God as a true believer should. It's all in my head. What can I do to change my feelings?"

Pascal's response to this problem, one which he apparently took very seriously, was to recommend a series of physical changes in one's life. Go to mass, start participating in the other minor rituals of the Church, control your passions, and begin to practice the spiritual and corporeal works of mercy. In this way the intellectual believer's feelings and emotions will be changed in a religious direction, emotionally speaking.

One must not suppose, though, that, strictly speaking, what Pascal is saying is meant to be a symmetrical relationship. Pascal makes no claim that it is. For this French mathematician the intellect is always of primary significance in his analysis of human behavior. It would be a mistake to interpret him as a seventeenth century Behaviorist after the fashion of J. B. Watson and B. F. Skinner in the twentieth century. The latter psychologists claim that, via a series of positive and negative reinforcements, your physical behavior and habits can be altered in such a way that your very thoughts and mental life will also become quite different and permanently set in a different way in comparison to what they were before.

For Pascal, however, it is the intellect that must lead, and the emotions, feelings, and body which must follow. He did not claim that your mind will be changed because you change your physical habits, rituals, and devotions. As he knew from his own experience of people and society, and as he certainly would have learned from the process of religious conversion, something in which he was deeply interested, people do in fact change. Sometimes it is for the better and sometimes it is for the worse. His main interest was in getting people to change for the better, which meant, from his perspective, getting them to sincerely accept Jesus Christ as their personal savior.

But how can such a thing be done? Experience told him that it could not be done simply by force of habit. There are too many cases around in which someone, even though faithfully raised in all the practices, works, habits, rituals, devotions, and so on, of a particular religion, goes off in some other direction later in life. Often this is at great emotional cost. The change from one religion to another, from non-religion to religion, or from religion to non-religion, can extract a heavy toll in terms of mental anxiety, the loss of old family and friendship ties, as well as possibly having serious economic consequences. In some cases, one's very life might be put in danger.

Yet, in spite of all the emotional stress and strain, people do go through such changes all the time. The explanation for such behavior must involve more than simply early childhood training. Our ability to think and reason, to find evidence and reach conclusions, especially in our mature years, must have a great deal to do with it. Maugham too is well aware of these facts of human experience but he is not so sure that reason has much to do with it.

At a certain point in Maugham's novel, Larry is searching for meaning in life. He hadn't thought much about the existence and nature of God up to that point, but he was beginning to do so now. He was especially troubled by the existence of evil in the world. Along the way he meets a Father Ensheim, a German monk, who invites Larry to stay awhile in his monastery in Alsace. In trying to convince Larry that he should come along for awhile, if only as a trial experience, Father Ensheim, sounding very much like a modern Behaviorist, tells Larry that the Church is very wise, even in the ways of the world, and that it "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."4

Larry finally does spend some time at the monastery. But the remedy doesn't work on him. Even though he made a sincere effort to fit into the physical and spiritual atmosphere of the place, his <mind> remained so crowded with doubts and questions, especially with respect to his anxiety over the existence of evil in the world, that he left the monastery little better off than when he arrived. According to Maugham's presentation of the situation, Larry was simply not meant for the Roman Catholic religion. As it turns out later, even though born in the West, Larry was sooner or later bound to become a Hindu, or at least to embrace a world-view which was something very close to Hinduism, which is exactly what happened to him later on after traveling to India and meeting a venerated Maharshi.

As with Elliott who, regardless of his nominal religious status, was a vain social-climber, and as with Sophie who was a born prostitute, for whom an apparently happy marriage and a new baby were really only a brief abnormality in her life, so Larry's destiny was fixed well in advance of anything he might do or think at a later stage in his life. Pascal, if he were given a chance to comment on Maugham's story, I'm sure would say that his proposed psychosomatic therapy only works when there is an already existing clear and strong intellectual realization of the objective truth of the doctrine in question. However, I'm equally sure that Maugham would regard this response as being beside the point.

The main point is that, regardless of what happens to us, and regardless of what we think we may be doing to the world, to others, and to ourselves, we are pre-determined to certain ends in life. This goes for our intellects as well as for our feelings and emotions. Is anything really rational, and do we ever really rationally control our own destinies? Are we not rather caught in the grip of largely uncontrollable and incomprehensible cosmic forces? Is not Nature (Brahman) the only reality? Are not you and the Absolute one and the same? Maugham is willing to agree with Pascal when he thinks Pascal is affirming the irrational nature of love and the supremacy of passions, but not when Pascal affirms our rational ability to change ourselves and our destinies.

Regarding each person as a fleeting moment in the eternal dynamic of the Great Whole, as a temporary manifestation of the Tremendous Totality, has certain advantages. As a minute part of a momentous whole, as a being who is really, in the ultimate evaluation, identical with Nature, it looks as if human beings can rather easily resolve the problem of why evil exists in the world and in their personal lives. Evil events and effects are simply a necessary part of Nature. As the Absolute, the one and only really real reality, struggles and churns, it is bound to produce conflict, suffering, death, and destruction. Evil in nature is as predictable as the tides in the ocean. To Nature everything is natural.

For human beings this means that there are numerous paths to earthly salvation. Just as the amorphous mass of Nature affords us no independence of existence so does it also force us into a moral morass. As mere mortals we must constantly struggle to free our feet from the snags and snares of everything around us, whether human or nonhuman. But in the end we must all fail. If nothing else, death sees to that. Love may be a passion, and passion for life may be the greatest possible human achievement, but in the end, to borrow a phrase from Jean-Paul Sartre, our life is ultimately nothing but a useless passion. We are all trapped within the walls of a careless and indifferent Nature.

Some foolishly try to break the inexorable force of fate, to overcome the determinism of destiny. Others accept their roles in the universe and live out their lives in the best way they can. Larry ends up being a bundle of contradictions, but nevertheless continues his personal struggle to live a life free of the ordinary "rat-race" pressure of the world and its present society. Distracted, confused, good, bad, hard, soft, mean, and generous, Larry, like a strong salmon straining to reach its home in the head-waters of some distant inland stream, struggles on, knowing only too well that in the end he will die and rot and be forgotten forever.

But what of others? In the infinitely malleable, supremely soft body of Nature the dialectic of development can take numerous forms, no one of which in the long run being ultimately of any greater value than any other. From the point of view of Brahman everyone and everything is a success. Larry got the kind of life he wanted and so, subjectively at least, was happy. Elliott achieved social eminence. Isabel lived out her life as a sophisticated society matron. Gray got wealth and importance in business. Suzanne finally achieved social security by marrying someone she would never have given a second thought to in her younger days. And Sophie succeeded in achieving death by her own hand.

Individuals die but the species goes on. And beyond the species is the force of life surging through all the living things in the universe. But even beyond that is the Absolute which swallows up everything into Itself, and which rules all with the iron laws of nature. What more could a novelist ask for? A guaranteed happy ending to every possible story in the whole vast universe of all possible stories.

Yes, but is what he thinks about nature, human beings, and God, true? It may be all well and good to say that attempting to achieve perfection in this world is like trying to walk along the sharp edge of a razor, but then must we not also say that there are numerous razors in the world along whose edges you may try to walk? It seems that this is exactly the view of the world which Maugham, in this novel, inculcates into the thinking of the reader. Towards the end of the novel, Larry tells Maugham that "The only woman I've met whom I could have married was poor Sophie."5 Maugham is amazed to hear such a thing. Larry, however, assures him that it is true.

In Larry's way of looking at things, Sophie was a kindred spirit. Even her suicide, he thought, was a noble act. Maugham is forced is simply accept Larry's evaluation of the situation without comment. After all, according to Maugham's own final evaluation of the whole situation, they were both successful in life. Indeed, everyone in the novel was a success.

So how many razor edges are there? Under the circumstances, is it really proper to talk about <the> razor's edge? Should we not say instead <a> razor's edge? Or, one razor's edge among many? That is to say, there is no one straight and narrow path to success; no one and only narrow gate by which to enter into the kingdom of God (Nature).

Such a conclusion is perfectly consistent with Maugham's world-view. His universe is a completely naturalistic state of affairs. There may be "spirited" people in his world, but there are no spirits in any immaterial sense. In such a view the most we can make of the "God" of traditional language is the whole world itself, with all of its beauties and disfigurations, whatever they may be. The transcendent God of Judaeo-Christianity is no more, and all that is left of this very lofty but terribly unscientific notion is a sad, lingering sense of something "more" at work in the world than the momentary, fleeting existences of individual things.

It is clear from Maugham's novel that he considers everyone to have been a success in life. Yet we cannot help but wonder how this is possible, especially when we also get the clear impression from Maugham's words that he is not so sure that some characters in the story, especially Elliott Templeton, are really fully respectable. Can we really truly and wholeheartedly fully accept <all> life-histories as <equally> successful? And if we do not, how are we to judge their relative worth? By what standard are we to decide that someone has made a better job of it than someone else?

If we take the naturalistic world-view seriously it seems that we cannot have any such standard. The most we might hope for would be some very pragmatic guide, maybe in some Darwinian evolutionary sense, which tells us to look for the survival and differential reproduction ratios among the various characters in the play of life. But this is certainly not what Maugham was looking for. Whether or not any of them reproduced in large numbers, each one was a success according to Maugham. It would seem that we are dealing here with something quite different from a biological criterion of success. What can it be?

Nietzsche's Naturalism

I think the place to look for the answer to this question is in the thinking of someone such as F. W. Nietzsche (1844-1900), someone who was well aware of his differences from Darwin, but who, nevertheless, insisted upon a completely naturalistic world-view. In Nietzsche's naturalism the world is dominated by a surge to life and power. This life-force comes before human reason, and in the end must always be regarded as superior to intellect when it comes to determining the course and history of the world.

What is it that renders each and every organic being, regardless of how simple it may be, so superior to the greatest creations of human engineers? It is their <inner> drive to grow and develop. Darwin's emphasis upon the great influence of the outside environment, says Nietzsche, is nonsensical. It may even be the case that a deficiency in an organism will be of greater value in promoting the development of that organism than some supposedly advantageous trait. Suffering and tragedy are often like beneficial tonics which promote growth. According to Nietzsche, the <essential> factor in the natural life process is the organism's <inner> power to shape and use its environment. Active exploitation, often stimulated by some defect, is the key thing.6

He makes the same point in his <Twilight of the Idols>, completed shortly before his lapse into insanity. In this work he once again returns to his attack upon Darwin for not being observant enough in the formulation of his evolutionary theory. As far as Nietzsche can see, the struggle for limited resources is not the basic law of nature. Rather than want it is richness which prevails in the world. And of most importance, when there is a struggle for life, it is the <strong>, not the weak, which always seem to come up short. In the case of human beings, the weak band together and use their power of reason to defeat the few strong ones. The reason why Darwin failed to notice these things, strongly asserts Nietzsche, is that Darwin, besides being very much under the influence of the Bible, simply forgot the subservient role of reason in real-life situations. Nietzsche explains:

Darwin forgot the intellect (—that <is> English!), the weak have more intellect. In order to acquire intellect, one must be in need of it. One loses it when one no longer needs it.7

In Nietzsche's naturalism reason does not mark the high point of worldly development. The real high water mark can be found only in certain supreme human beings, the supermen, those few noble creatures which the whole universe is churning to create. To his way of thinking, the whole evolutionary process is simply nature's way of producing these few excellent men. The birth and death of billions of nondescript human creatures (the herd) is well worth it if, sooner or later, a few supermen are produced. These men will be the new Olympic gods, the real-life manifestations of those mythical beings so honored by the Greeks. They will be the creators of their own morality, and, indirectly, the creators of whole new systems of morality for others inferior to themselves.

These new philosopher-kings, these noble aristocrats, who will be more like Cesare Borgia than Wagner's Parsifal, will become the new leaders of the world. Sublime in their exalted detachment, "spiritual" in their nevertheless completely materialistic existence, they will combine certain aspects of Plato's philosopher-kings, Aristotle's great aristocratic minds, Epicurus' detached gods, and the best of the Eastern religious polytheism. They will be, in effect, the only truly <whole> men in the world, possessing in their own right all the power and majesty of the ancient gods. Nietzsche's new gods will bring together the leader, the hero, the poet, the prophet, and the strongman. As George Allen Morgan expresses the situation:

The Lords of the Earth have ultimate power, but do not bother with the details of government . . . And not even the exercise of supreme power over society is their main purpose. They are the end to which society is a means; hence they live in detached unconcern like "Epicurean gods." It is their business to represent perfection on earth.8

To Nietzsche's way of thinking, the whole difference between good and <bad> boils down to nothing more or less than the difference between the noble and the <despicable>. The origin of the difference between good and <evil>, however, is somewhat different. Good and bad apply to men taken in their total individuality, while good and evil are terms applied to individual actions. Due to the influence of Judaeo-Christianity, the two (bad, evil) have become confused. It is only the whole man, asserts Nietzsche, who is noble or ignoble, good or bad; these traits are not assigned to him because of one or more of his separate actions but only based upon his life as a whole given his particular society at some particular time. Talking about absolutely good actions or evil actions is nonsense to Nietzsche's ears. And who determines whether or not an individual is good or bad? In the end it is the man himself.

The noble type of man regards <himself> as a determiner of values; he does not require to be approved of; he passes the judgment: "What is injurious to me is injurious in itself"; he knows that it is he himself only who confers honour on things; he is a <creator of values.>9

The reason Nietzsche can speak this way is because "God is Dead" and so there is no objective standard of right and wrong, justice, fairness, and so forth. The world is completely on its own. There is no one of a personal nature to whom human beings can turn for guidance, nor is there any transcendent realm of impersonal Perfect Ideas, after the fashion of Plato, to which we can appeal for objective standards. Whatever set of standards we choose to live by is objective only in the sense that we have in fact chosen to live by them. This is something the superman knows very well, and is willing to act on.

Yes, but what about the existence of evil? Can we do away with the right without also doing away with the wrong? Nietzsche realizes that we cannot. He is well aware of the fact that if you kill God you also kill Satan. Nietzsche tells us:

The world seen from within, the world defined and designated according to its "intelligible character"—it would simply be "Will to Power," and nothing else. . . . "What? Does not that mean in popular language: God is disproved, but not the devil?"—On the contrary! On the contrary, my friend!10

There is no such thing as sin in any traditional religious sense. Sin is a superstition; it is one of the great mistakes of the past which we are now, in our more enlightened scientific age, more and more coming to see for what it really is: The great obstacle to progress.

Nietzsche sees his whole approach as positive, life-affirming, yes-saying to human experience, warmly humanistic, and so forth. He takes the ancient pre-Christian pagans as his heroes. Whether or not he's historically justified in his enthusiasm for the noble ancients is beside the point. In his own mind, Nietzsche sees them as such, and this mainly because of what he perceives to be their closeness to the surface of life. They took things as they found them, embraced the given world with open arms, and drank in deeply of whatever it offered. Nietzsche overflows with emotion, crying out:

Oh, those Greeks! They knew how <to live>: for that purpose it is necessary to keep bravely to the surface, the fold and the skin; to worship appearance, to believe in forms, tones, and words, in the whole Olympus of appearance!11

Positively Negative

It has often been said, in the Judaeo-Christian theological tradition at least, that a heresy resides not so much in what is affirmed as in what is denied.12 I think the same sort of thing applies very well here also. Talking about affirming everything, rejecting nothing, accepting all, taking everything at face value, never judging anyone, especially in the moral sense, and so on, is not really something profoundly positive. In fact, I suggest that in this situation speaking positively is a euphemism, a way of trying to appear positive while in fact being very negative.