Maugham, W. Somerset Entries

Of Human Bondage


Back in July, I wrote about the ways in which Thomas Mann's The Magic Mountain reminds me of the work of Marcel Proust: Mann's obsession with human perceptions of time, and the complex ways in which large and small quantities of time flex and bend as we experience them. So it's only fitting that I'm closing out the year with another book which reminded me forcibly of In Search of Lost Time: W. Somerset Maugham's Of Human Bondage. Instead of sharing Proust's philosophical preoccupation with memory and chronology, though, Maugham brought back to me two other Proustian qualities: a fierce cynicism about the perversity of human behavior in what is commonly called "love," and a transparently - yet confusingly - encoded narrative about homosexuality.

Of Human Bondage is a classic bildungsroman: it follows young Philip Carey, a shy boy with a club foot, from his early childhood (the death of his parents; his life with his well-meaning aunt and cold, self-involved Vicar uncle; the cruelties of the other children at his boarding school) through his life as a student in Heidelberg and, later, his several abortive career starts. Along the way he makes all the mistakes typical of one's teens and early twenties: he breaks hearts and gets his own broken, spends his money too quickly and has to revise his plans as a result; becomes enamored of careers that don't suit him; tries on the identities of the idealist and the cynic before settling out somewhere in the middle. He also loses religion, gains a sense of humor, and struggles to define a useful morality outside of an organized faith.

Philip can be a bit of a sad sack, and (especially in his early years) pompously self-righteous, but for me the narrative was saved by the fact that Maugham doesn't take his protagonist too seriously. He shares with Proust the wry stance that all his characters are a bit ridiculous, and those who take themselves seriously are even more so. Maugham's satire is gentle, infused with compassion: he never despises Philip, but neither does he share Philip's own estimate of how vitally important his emotional crises might be. Take this passage, from shortly after Philip becomes an atheist:

To Philip, intoxicated with the beauty of the scene, it seemed that it was the whole world which was spread out before him, and he was eager to step down and enjoy it. He was free from degrading fears and free from prejudice. He could go his way without the intolerable dread of hell-fire. Suddenly he realized that he had lost also that burden of responsibility which made every action of his a matter of urgent consequence. He could breathe more freely in a lighter air. He was responsible only to himself for the things he did. Freedom! He was his own master at last. From old habit, unconsciously, he thanked God that he no longer believed in Him.

It seems to me that Maugham is striking a delicate balance here between acknowledging the power of Philip's existential breakthrough, and gently poking fun at his naive idea that his entire life will be immediately transformed and all responsibility be lifted from his shoulders simply because he has stopped believing in the Church of England. Maugham maintains this balance throughout the book, and struck me as one of the novel's most impressive feats: to have compassion for its characters, while at the same time maintaining a slightly amused distance from their self-importance.

Which is not to say that the characters themselves act in a balanced way. Maugham shares Proust's cynical view that what people call "love" is a destructive, perverse sexual passion that involves, almost by definition, an unequal power struggle between the two parties involved. There is the lover and the loved, argue Maugham and Proust, and to the loved, the lover's desperate passion is sometimes useful, but also increasingly distasteful. Ironically, the only way to inspire passion in another is to get over your own infatuation to the point where you can treat your lover with indifference - at which point, you won't care anymore whether they love you or not. The tendency on the part of lovers is to fall for people who will abuse and reject them; no amount of reasoned argument can overcome this tendency and allow the ardent lover to settle down with someone who treats him well instead. Never, in either work, is romantic love depicted as a true meeting of minds/hearts/souls; never are lovers depicted as both sexually passionate and actually enjoying each others' company. As such, I don't believe either Maugham or Proust is actually writing about "love," but about sexual obsession (and in fact Philip comes to more or less this realization late in Of Human Bondage).

Personally, although I recognize the existence of sexual obsession and have suffered my time with it, and although I think both Proust and Maugham write about it perceptively, I miss the presence of a more genuine love in both authors' work. I don't share their pessimistic opinion that a true and nourishing romantic connection is impossible - after all, my partner and I have created one ourselves, and so have many other couples I know. As a matter of fact, I don't believe either Proust or Maugham actually believe in the impossibility of genuine human connection either; it's just that in their novels, this dynamic is allocated to the close male/male friendships cultivated by their protagonists. These friendships, in turn, are part of the encoding of same-sex desire in both novels, which is more complex than it at first appears.

In the 1910s in England homosexual acts were still punishable by law, and written material about homosexual relationships would have been banned under the Obscenity Publications Act. So it's understandable that Maugham's Philip, like Proust's Marcel, falls in love with women instead of men. In Proust's case many of Marcel's female amours are thinly-veiled references to Proust's own male lovers: his chauffeur Albert, for example, with whom he had an unhappy and controlling affair, is transformed into the fictional Albertine. Proust scholar Joshua Landy argues convincingly that Proust's presentation of sexuality and gender is much more complex than this (for example, why veil Marcel's sexuality while including other, openly gay characters?), but in a way Marcel can be read as "actually" having relationships with men, who are only encoded as women for propriety's sake. In Maugham, on the other hand, Philip seems more like a man who is having relationships with women who disgust him, when he's actually attracted to men. In one case the author creates the closet as a kind of blind; in the other case the character is actually in the closet. Philip has several love affairs throughout the novel, including one extended "Grand Passion," but in none of them does he find the woman beautiful or even attractive, more often describing her with adjectives like "repulsive" and "grotesque." In the absolute best-case scenario, he appreciates a woman's beauty aesthetically, as he would admire a well-executed painting. His male friends, on the other hand, are often painted in terms of physical beauty: our attention is often drawn to their "long, tapering fingers" and "muscles that stood out as though they were made of iron." Their physical appearances inspire Philip's artistic urges, and observing them physically leads to a desire to draw closer, to spend more time with them. It's not hard to distinguish which is the more appetizing set of descriptors.

Mildred, the woman with whom Philip becomes obsessed in the middle section of the novel, is quite androgynous, and he is forever dwelling on her flat chest and narrow hips. He finds her, like he finds all women, ugly - even at his most obsessive he never calls her beautiful. She has crooked teeth and anemic, greenish skin, and is skeletally thin. Yet there are also moments, like this one, when I felt that Mildred doubled as a Proustian encoded man, and that Maugham was using her presence as a way for Philip to work out his conflicted feelings about his sexuality. (Hayward is a close male friend of Philip's.)

...Hayward would have been astonished at [Philip's] weakness. He would despise him, and perhaps be shocked or disgusted that he could envisage the possibility of making Mildred his mistress after she had given herself to another man. What did he care if it was shocking or disgusting? He was ready for any compromise, prepared for more degrading humiliation still, if he could only gratify his desire.

To me this does not seem like guilt over taking a mistress who has been with other men; both Hayward and Philip have been involved with sexually experienced women before. Philip's vision of a love that others may think is "shocking and disgusting" seems much more like anxiety around homosexual desire to me, and Mildred's boyish stature backs this up. Mildred's ability to walk the line between man and woman is one of the most interesting things about Of Human Bondage. Within the text she occupies a kind of liminal space between male and female, combining Philip's feelings of disgust for her femaleness and attraction for her maleness. Her androgyny provides him with a more socially acceptable way to approach the subject of his homosexual feelings - and it seems to me very consistent with Philip's character that he would need this. Sadly for him she's also a total psychopath. C'est la vie.

I know quite a few people are doing the Challenge that Dare Not Speak its Name in 2010, and if you're up for a 600-pager, I'd recommend Of Human Bondage as a fascinating peek into the early 20th-century experience of writing about same-sex desire. For those not doing the challenge, I'd recommend it anyway! So there.

(Of Human Bondage was my tenth and final book for the Decades '09 Challenge. Which is also my final challenge of 2009! Wrap-up post to come shortly.)

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link to Wolves 2011 reading list
link to more disgust bibliography