Saturday, February 26, 2011

Somerset Maugham, Teller of Tales by Selina Hastings

Although an extremely successful playwright, it was as a teller of tales, as a writer of short stories, that Somerset Maugham was most widely known and admired. With one single exception, all his 122 stories first appeared in magazines, easily accessible on newspaper stands and station bookstalls even to people who never dreamed of entering a library or bookshop. “Beloved by unliterary, unofficial, unacademic humanity,” as Glenway Wescott put it, Maugham, 'the mahatma of middlebrow culture,” exerted a hold over the popular imagination matched by few of his contemporaries.

There is something infinitely seductive in the persona he frequently adopted as narrator, a narrator who both is and yet is not part of the story, a man of the world with a clear eye and sardonic sense of humor, who in a leisurely manner over drink and a cigar settles down to confide in the reader something pretty fascinating about the kind of ordinary chap encountered any day of the week in a bar or club.“His extraordinary knowledge of human beings is like that of an experienced confessor, said Raymond Mortimer, and like a confessor, “he is never shocked”.

The deceptive simplicity of Maugham's method conceals a highly honed technique, as anyone who has tried to imitate it will know: in the opinion of the novelist John Fowles it is as necessary for a writer to have mastered the Maughamesque short story... as it is for an artist to have mastered the art of drawing.” His hallmarks were the plain style, the absolute verisimilitude, the dramatists taut plotting and deftness with dialogue, and often the provision of the unexpected denouement, the twist in the tale, that leaves the reader shocked and delighted.

“His plots are cool and deadly and his timing is absolutely flawless.,” said Raymond Chandler, himself an expert in the genre. Naturally there were critics quick to condemn him for what he was not: his stories were not remarkably profound; he was never particularly inventive; and he lacked the vision, the genius, “the transforming passion,” in V.S. Pritchett's words, of a Conrad or a Chekhov; and what he did he did superbly well, and occasionally approached perfection.

It was with the short story that Maugham found his true metier. “I have never pretended to be anything but a story-teller,” as he stated more than once. He enjoyed the form and he worked hard at it, and was always on the lookout for new characters and themes. Just as he had done all those years before while traveling in the East, he continued to encourage strangers and familiars alike to describe their experiences, even if there was a high price to be paid for the process. “I find it often a very tedious business,” he wrote in his notebook. “It requires a good deal of patience... [Y}ou must be ready to listen for hours to the retailing of second-hand information in order at last to catch the hint or casual remark that betrays.”

For Maugham, writing was not just what he did: it was where he lived. “I have never been able to persuade myself that anything else mattered,” he wrote in The Summing Up. While at work he was completely in control, in a world of his own making, and in extreme old age he stated that the happiest hours of his life had been experienced while seated at his desk when his writing was going well, and “word followed word till the luncheon gong forced me to put an end to the day's work.”

The tools of his trade were simple: a fountain pen specially designed with a thick collar to give added weight, a bottle of black ink, and white unlined paper purchased from the Times Bookshop, of which there was always a neat stack on his desk. He wore horned-rimmed reading spectacles, and chain-smoked as he worked; in later years he took to wearing a pink plastic mitten with zip fasteners designed to protect against repetitive strain and poor circulation.

While Maugham's productivity was unceasing, he always made a point of differentiating between invention and imagination. “I have always had more stories in my head than I ever had time to write,” he said, but

though I have had variety of invention... I have small power of imagination. I have taken living people and put them into situations, tragic or comic, that their characters suggested. I might well say that they invented their own stories. I have been incapable of those great, sustained flights that carry the author on broad pinions into a celestial sphere. My fancy, never very strong, has been hampered by my sense of probability.

The countless stories in his head meant that he was never at a loss for a subject; indeed, most of his life was passed in a state of possession, with ideas for plays, novels, and stories dominating his thoughts, not letting him rest until he had written them down. Because he lived with his themes and characters for months beforehand, sometimes years, there was never any need for an outline, and when eventually he was ready he wrote fast, not stopping for anything. While in the middle of a novel, Maugham said, his characters were more real to him than the characters of real life; he inhabited a different dimension, more vivid and more meaningful than the physical world outside.

With the first draft complete, the work of revision followed. “Then I go over very carefully all I have written & get order into the thing, look for the right words, bother myself with euphony, shorten, make what was obscure clear.” The words did not always flow, and sometimes a single page had to be written and rewritten, but however difficult, the experience never failed to be wholly absorbing. Yet in the final analysis the actual process of creation, 'the most enthralling of human activities,” as Maugham described it, was impossible to pin down.

As many writers have attested, the precise moment of alchemical reaction remains a mystery, explicable only as a work of the subconscious, of “the useful little imp that dwells in your fountain open and does for you all your best writing.” Once he had rid himself of the story by putting it down on paper, once the text was revised, the proofs corrected, the final version edited and approved, there was the excitement of seeing the work in print; a brief excitement, however, as by the time the book was published and in the shops, “I am no longer interested in it and I don't really care what people say about it.”

Among the actors and actresses he worked with in theater Maugham had the highest regard for Glady's Cooper; he admired her beauty, her professionalism, and her no-nonsense attitude toward life in general, while she for her part had the greatest esteem for him. “I place Somerset Maugham as our finest writer for the stage,” she stated in her autobiography. It was during rehearsals for The Letter , of which she was also co-producer, that Gladys properly came to appreciate Maugham's method, impressed by how accommodating he was with regard to making changes in his text. “The majority of authors,” she wrote, “are terribly sensitive and jealous of their work, regarding every word they have written as almost a pearl beyond price...Not so Somerset Maugham.” He would sit in the stalls, ready with his blue pencil to cross out or rewrite whatever she or the director Gerald du Maurier wished.

In large part this relaxed attitude derived from the detached view Maugham took of his dramatic work: it was the private process of composition that engaged him, not the play's evolution onstage; once the work was in the hands of the actors and director, it became something else, with which he no longer felt closely concerned. For this reason the theater was ultimately regarded as an unsatisfactory medium for a writer. For Maugham, rehearsing became dull work, attended to more from a sense of duty than because he felt crucially involved in the interpretation of his script. This attitude was noted by the director Basil Dean during preparations for East of Suez. “Maugham lacked genuine enthusiasm for the theatre. Throughout rehearsals he remained withdrawn, neither helpful nor obstructive, never offering advice unless it was asked for. I think he found the whole business tiresome and the actors' arguments rather petty. Yet, when appealed to, he was always ready with the unconvincing response: “Oh, ex-excellent!”. Once I asked him whether I might cut certain lines: “Wh-wh-why not?” he spluttered “The st-st-stage is a w-w-workshop.”

After his death, the reputation of Somerset Maugham suffered the inevitable decline of renown writers, the decline that especially follows a long career that has been lived much in the public eye and in tunes with its times. In the 1960s the times were rapidly changing, a few cared to read then of the old order, of the days of the Empire, of District Officers in the jungle or the wiles of wives in repressive Edwaurdian marriages. Maugham would not have been surprised. “the first little splutter of interest that follows a person's death in the case of a writer is followed by some years of neglect,” he wrote in 1946. “Then if there is anything in his work of enduring value, interest in him will be renewed."

This was prescient, for the last couple of decades have seen a remarkable revival of the work of this extraordinary man. Maugham learned very young to be wary and secretive in his personal life, which was full of pain, but in his writing he found happiness and release. He described the act of creation as 'the most enthralling of human activities,” the one place where the writer can find solace, “can tell his secret yet not betray it.”

His love for his art, his single-minded dedication, made him one of the most popular and prolific writers who ever lived, and it is safe to say now that he will again hold generations in thrall, that his place is assured: Somerset Maugham, the great teller of tales.

The Secret Lives of Somerset Maugham; A Biography by Selina Hastings; Random House; 2010

Portrait by Graham Sutherland, Tate Gallery

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Travels in Arabia Deserta 1874 -76 by Charles M. Doughty

As I wandered through Palestine I came to a place where the Moslems show a sepulchre of the prophet Jonas. The respectable blind sire who kept the chapel, when I would enter further than the ruinous chamber, forbade me; and to the company he related how of late years two rash young men of the village had made bold to thrust into the Neby's tomb, "but ah! Sirs, wellah, said he, they came forth blind;" and the poor gaffer shook his head piteously again. Here credulous persons, having lighted upon a miracle, might have taken half the village to witness.

Commonly the longer one lives in a fabulous time or country, the weaker will become his judgment. Certainly I have heard fables worthy of the Arabs from the lips of excellent Europeans too long remaining in the East. How often in my dwelling in that hostile world have I felt desolate, even in a right endeavor: the testimony of all men's (half-rational) understandings making against my lonely reason; and must I not seem to them, in holding another opinion, to be a perverse and unreasonable person?

Many admirable things, unless you can misbelieve them all, fall out daily according to their faith, and their world is to thy soul as another planet of nature. Their religious wizards converse with the jan, the cabalistic discovery of hid things is every day confirmed by many faithful witnesses. Because they had some fond expectation even of me, a stranger, it was reported afterward, at Teyma, that I wrought miracles. Certain persons affirmed with oaths that "Khalil had been seen by night uplifting stones, wellah of machinal weight, out of a great ruined well-pit, and with no more than the touch of his fingers;" and yet at such hours I was sleeping, encamped with the Aarab, nearly a mile distant.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Time by David Mamet

The mystery of drama is time: how to use time, how to exploit the human perception of time and its ordering into cause and effect. The rejection of this intolerable burden, our human specialty, is the goal of the religious mystic, the yogi, the lover, and the drug addict.- to live in a world without time, to achieve nonbeing.

The examination of this urge and its avowal and the confession of its tragic impossibility is the subject of all drama.

All plays are about lies. A misimagined or misdescribed situation is presented to the hero, and he must uncover the lie that engendered it or strive to create those lies which he thinks will extract him from the situation. When the lie is revealed, the play is over: the work of the repressive mechanism has been explored and the audience has experienced both its power and its weakness, and has seen it defeated. Though the play may have not dealt with his particular dilemma, the affected viewer leaves refreshed to find a vicarious victory over the species of torment he shares with the hero (consciousness).

In politics, however, the lies are rarely uncovered, or even when uncovered not allowed to a have a determining effect in the formulation of future policy; they are quickly 'swept under the carpet". Repressive mechanisms and the objective conditions of the hegemony of the 'elite' in America are suffered to remain obscure. It is only on the basis of new lies and unexplored repressions that 'the public' is suffered to be refreshed by the vicarious victory of events such as the Egyptian people's uprising against their American supported tyrant.

Friday, February 4, 2011

Paving the Route to Rupture [Revolution] by Erik Olin Wright

Many nineteenth-century anarchists shared with Marxist-inspired revolutionary socialists the belief that ultimately a revolutionary rupture with capitalism would be necessary. Where they differed sharply was in the belief of what sorts of transformations were needed within capitalism in order for a revolutionary rupture to plausibly usher in a genuinely emancipatory alternative.

For Marx, and later for Lenin, the central task of struggles within capitalism was to forge the collective capacity of a politically unified working class needed to successfully seize state power as the necessary condition for overthrowing capitalism. The task of deep social reconstruction to create the environment for a new way of life with new principles, new forms of social interaction and reciprocity, would largely have to wait until “after the revolution”.

For revolutionary anarchists, on the other hand, significant progress in such reconstruction is not only possible within capitalism, but is a necessary condition for a sustainable emancipatory rupture with capitalism. In discussing Proudhon's views on revolution, Martin Buber writes:

“[Proudhon] divined the tragedy of revolutions and came to feel it more and more deeply in the course of disappointing experiences. Their tragedy is that as regards their positive goal they will always result in the exact opposite of what the most honest and passionate revolutionaries strive for, unless and until this [deep social reform] has so far taken shape before the revolution that the revolutionary act has only to wrest the space for it in which it can develop unimpeded.”

If we want a revolution to result in a deeply egalitarian, democratic, and participatory way of life, Buber writes,

'the all-important fact is that, in the social as opposed to the political sphere, revolution is not so much a creative as a delivering force whose function is to set free and authenticate – i.e. that it can only perfect, set free, and lend the stamp of authority to something that has already been foreshadowed in the womb of the pre-revolutionary society; that, as regards social revolution, the hour of revolution is not an hour of begetting but an hour of birth – provided there was a begetting beforehand.” (Paths in Utopia, Beacon Press, 1958, p.44)

Buber's metaphor of birth combines the idea of incremental metamorphosis with rupture: the moment of birth is a rupture with the past. There is a 'before” and “after”, a discontinuity in the life course. But birth can only happen after a successful, incremental gestation in which future potentials are brought to the brink of full actualization, and after birth this incremental process continues through maturation.

A rupture with capitalism is thus necessary in this strategic vision, but it requires a deep process of interstitial transformation beforehand if it is to succeed.

Supporters of the necessity of interstitial transformations within capitalism claim that such transformations can bring into capitalism some of the virtues of a society beyond capitalism. Thus the quality of life of ordinary people in capitalism is improved by such transformations. The revolutionary anarchist strategy also recognizes, however, that at some point such interstitial social transformations within capitalism hit limits which impose binding restraints. Capitalism ultimately blocks the full realization of the potential of socially empowering interstitial transformations. A rupture with capitalism thus becomes necessary to break through those limits if that potential is to advance further.

If capitalism has already been significantly internally transformed through socially empowering interstitial transformations, the transition troughs that follow a break with the old order will be tolerably shallow and of relatively short duration.

Successful interstitial transformations within capitalism mean that economic life becomes less dependent upon capitalist firms and capitalist markets even as capitalism continues. Workers' and consumer cooperatives have developed widely and play a significant role in the economy; the social economy provides significant basic needs; collective associations engage in a wide variety of socially empowering regulation; and perhaps power relations within capitalist firms have been significantly transformed as well. Taken together, these changes mean that the economic disruption of the break with capitalism will be less damaging than in the absence of such interstitial transformations. Furthermore, the pre-ruptural transformations are palpable demonstrations to workers and other potential beneficiaries of socialism that alternatives to capitalism in which the quality of life is better are viable. This contributes to forming the political will for a rupture once the untransgressable limits with capitalism are encountered.

Egalitarian, democratic social empowerment will be sustainable after a rupture only if socially significant empowering interstitial transformations had occurred before the rupture. In the absence of such prior social empowerment, the rupture with capitalism will unleash strong centralizing and authoritarian tendencies that are likely to lead to a consolidation of an oppressive form of statism. Even well-intentioned socialists would then be forced by the contradictions they confront to build a different kind of society than the one they wanted. The result would be a decline in the quality of life for most people below the trajectory it would have been even under capitalism itself.