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My Online Writings - 2004 - '07

Part 3
It is foretold! The torrential flow of inexorable destiny!
The Moon and Sixpence and A Thing of Beauty

Somerset Maugham is an ancient favourite of mine. At the moment, I have one book of his in front of me. That is The Moon and Sixpence.

Many of his short stories are simply fascinating, and in many ways disturbing. For, I seem to sense a brutal level of understandings in his writings. At times, the way the themes are dealt with do border on a singular level of mercilessness, which can leave one with a terror in one’s mind. This terror is not one connected to the supernatural, but to the winding ways of destiny. One gets to feel the vastness of the ocean known as time, traversing which can reach or leave one on strange, and possibly, unexpected shores of time and space.

I read The Moon and Sixpence some eight years back. It is claimed to be based on the life of Paul Gaugin, the painter. I do not know much about the world of painting.

The protagonist of this story is Charles Strickland, an unassuming family man, with a dominating wife. He is a London stockbroker. One fine day, he leaves his wife and children, and moves to Paris. Being bored of the heights, he has literally gone in seek of the depths of the social experience.

Beneath his tranquil exterior is a very turbulent ambition: To achieve some strange levels of attainments in painting. It is a passion that defies human logic. There is something of the demonic in him that pursues him and also possibly persuades him to travel strange routes.

In his endeavour to reach his spiritual aims, he has admirable mental stamina, yet so sharp is his sense of purpose, he seems to lose all feelings of human compassion; even to the exclusion of himself. He has no compassion for anyone, including himself. In his devilish struggle to reach his strange level of salvation, he uses the persons who come to his aid and help, with pitiless selfishness. Once they are used, they are discarded with an awesome sense of disposing waste.

The painter ultimately finds his spiritual home in Tahiti. Here Maugham does continue the mood that many Englishmen felt in non-European places. Where they found adulation from the natives. A sense of being a hallowed being, which an Englishman can never achieve among his own fellowmen.

The book has a terrible mood, and a strange mental taste that lingers on. When I first started reading this book, I had a feeling that it could be just another tedious one like many of Maugham’s lengthy novels. Yet, when I finished it, the feeling it gave me, I remember, was one of being overwhelmed.

Before closing this writing, I want to mention another book. That is the Crusader’s Tomb, by A. J. Cronin. There is a certain level of similarity in the themes, for this book is also about a painter: Stephan Desmonde. The similarity exists in other themes: like both enduring terrible hardships in their search for salvation. Also, both do have a slight admiration of non-English nations. (For, I have sensed in many books of A. J. Cronin, a pervading feeling that nations like France, China etc. do have social moods that lends respect to genius, and talent, while England takes a very indifferent attitude to them. Even in such simple novels like Shannon’s Way, this feeling is there).

Beyond these similarities, the personalities are entirely different. The latter person is a very caring person with a lot of human sides to him, while the former is the very antonym of him. Yet, both do share a strange mental pull towards achieving perfection, and a painful level of the power of endurance. And ultimately both do seem to have no eagerness to achieve the adulation of their fellow humans. As if they existed beyond the boundaries of human evaluation.

Crusader’s Tomb is a slightly lengthy book, and one could say that it might be tedious to the non-passionate reader. I think that this book was also published under another title: A Thing of Beauty.

Quoting from The Moon and Sixpence:


‘What on earth can it be that two people so dissimilar as you and Strickland could aim at?’ I asked, smiling.


‘A large order,’ I murmured.

Do you know how men can be so obsessed by love that they are deaf and blind to everything else in the world? They are as little their own masters as the slaves chained to the benches of a galley. The passion that held Strickland in bondage was no less tyrannical than love.’

‘How strange that you should say that!’ I answered. ‘ For long ago I had the idea that he was possessed by a devil.’

‘And the passion that held Strickland was a passion to create beauty. It gave him no peace. It urged him hither and thither. He was eternally a pilgrim, haunted by a divine nostalgia, and the demon within him was ruthless. There are men whose desire for truth is so great that to attain it they will shatter the very foundation of their world. Of such was Strickland, only beauty with him took the place of truth. ———‘

Quoting from Crusader’s Tomb (last chapter):

How often, in these last few years, had he heard from its small beginning, yet ever growing, swelling to a chorus, that panegyric on his son, the same fulsome words and phrases used a moment ago by the young art mistress to her class. All the evidence of failure that seemed so certain, the cut-and-dried opinions of those who presumed to know, finally disproved; Stephan, his son, a great artist……...yes, even the word genius was now being used without reserve. There was no pride in him at the thought, no belated triumph, but rather a strange bewildered sadness, and thinking of the pain and disappointment of a lifetime crowned too late, he wondered if it had all been worth it. Was any picture worth it…the greatest masterpiece ever wrought? What was beauty, after all, that men should martyr themselves in its pursuit, die for it, like the saints of old?

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