Thursday, 11 April 2013

Maugham's Of Human Bondage and the Anatomy of Desire

review of comments on Maugham's novel Of Human Bondage, article on maugham, maugham criticism
Chapter 5: Maugham's Of Human Bondage and the Anatomy of Desire

Lane, Christopher. "Maugham's Of Human Bondage and the Anatomy of Desire." The Ruling Passion: British Colonial Allegory and The Paradox of Homosexual Desire. Durham: Duke University Press, 1995. 126-144.


This post will review a chapter from the book of criticism, The Ruling Passion: British Colonial Allegory and the Paradox of Homosexual Desire, on one of W. Somerset Maugham's novels, Of Human Bondage (1915). The review will dwell on some details, examining the arguments posed by the author Christopher Lane, which are tremendously weakened by a series of factual errors.

"Maugham's Of Human Bondage and the Anatomy of Desire"


In the previous post about an article on W. Somerset Maugham, I mentioned Theodore Spencer's list of four criteria in the evaluation of a serious fiction. Basically the idea is to create a logical world in which the reader can believe, a world that follows its internal rule. It does not matter whether it is different from ours. It is the same with interpretation; even if it is based on a theory that the reader may or may not accept, the interpretation has to be coherent and logical throughout.

Lane's chapter is a demonstration of one having a theory and, driven by one's conviction that it is true, one consciously or unconsciously (since he is taking quite a bit from Freud) forces one's evidence to fit one's theory. It can be said that one is "seeing things."

Philip Carey Reading Schopenhauer


In order to make a transition from his last chapter on Conrad's Victory, Lane compares the two protagonists by their reading of Schopenhauer; he writes: "... Maugham's protagonist, Philip Carey, reads the same philosopher to understand the vicissitudes of his aberrant and unmanageable 'will'" (126).


It matters little at this point whether Philip has an "aberrant and unmanageable 'will'." I just finished rereading Of Human Bondage a few days ago, so the memory is very fresh. The time that Schopenhauer is mentioned is in the lectures of Kuno Fischer that Philip attends in Heidelberg:
He had matriculated at the university and attended one or two courses of lectures. Kuno Fischer was then at the height of his fame and during the winter had been lecturing brilliantly on Schopenhauer. It was Philip's introduction to philosophy. He had a practical mind and moved uneasily amid the abstract; but he found an unexpected fascination in listening to metaphysical disquisitions; they made him breathless; it was a little like watching a tight-rope dancer doing perilous feats over an abyss; but it was very exciting. The pessimism of the subject attracted his youth; and he believed that the world he was about to enter was a place of pitiless woe and of darkness. That made him none the less eager to enter it. (M 114) [1]
There is no mention of the philosopher after that.

Lane follows Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick's theory and René Girard's account of erotic rivalry, as he tells us. As I mentioned in the beginning, it does not matter whether one agrees with the theory or the interpretation, I am looking at the validity of evidence here.

Philip's Clubfoot and Maugham's Stammer: Deformity Translated


It is an interesting point that Lane makes by quoting from a previous study about the relation between Maugham's stammer and Philip's clubfoot, that often one describes stammer as "a stumbling tongue," "speech paralysis," and how the etymology of stutter has as metaphor the hindrance in movement.

However, suddenly he concludes that "[t]he novel's obsession with Carey's 'deformity' (258) consistently links his speech and desire with internal and external impediments" (127). He is using a different edition of the novel and I could not find the reference of "deformity" that he is talking about. After I do a word search, I still fail to find the occurrence of "deformity" with relation to speech.

Lane also uses another quote to stress this point, which is at the end of the book: "Carey 'accepted the deformity which had made life so hard for him; he knew that it had warped his character, but now he saw also that by reason of it he had acquired th[e] power of introspection...' (696)" (127). However, this quote is more about introspection (as Maugham spells it out) and self-reflection, instead of speech.

Lane goes on to relate Philip's deformity with desire: "For instance, characters comment on the clubfoot whenever they express desire for each other" (129). I would disagree with this point; the characters comment on his clubfoot when they want to hurt Philip, which Philip comes to realize and tries to overcome:
"It stung you up a bit when I spoke of your game leg, young fellow?" he [Dr. South] said.
"People always do, directly or indirectly, when they get angry with me."
"I suppose they know it's your weak point."
Philip faced him and looked at him steadily.
"Are you glad to have discovered it?" (M 540) 
In this example, Dr. South insults Philip because a patient asks especially for Philip instead of him, and I doubt very much if he desires the latter.

Athelny VS Athenly: Homosexual Desire in Athens?


Then we come to something that I do not know how to interpret. I have not looked at the 1990 Mandarin edition, but Lane consistently makes error in the characters' name. When I came across the first one, "Mr. Athenly" (130), I thought it was a typo, which was nevertheless quite ingeniously done.

Then it appears again "Sally Athenly" (141), which eventually leads to my suspicion: "We could argue that Carey tries to resolve this conflict by marrying a female Athenly (or Athens), which combines both domestic security and a welcome legacy of homosexual desire from Ancient Greece" (142). For those who are not familiar with the text, the character's name is Athelny. Lane seems to want to find significance so much that he misreads in a tremendous way.

Another recurrent error is Mr. Simpson; it should be Mr. Sampson.

Anatomy of Desire: Putting Words in Maugham's Mouth


Later we find out why the chapter is titled "Anatomy of desire": "As part of his training for surgery, Carey receives a human leg to dissect, though the text throws the reader a bone shorn of figurative meaning: the leg offers little besides the 'acrid smell' of 'emaciated...skin' (299, 300). The knowledge it might impart of the anatomy of desire stalls; Carey swiftly concludes, 'Anatomy was a dreary science...dissection bored him' (305)"(134). I am afraid I fail to see a point here.

Lane goes on to the relationship between Mildred and Carey, wondering "[i]f Carey's attraction is to a feminine ideal without body or sexual demand..." (134). The attraction to Mildred, though she is not attractive at all, as Philip tells us in details, is sexual. He realizes that if he succeeds in having sex with her, his obsession may disappear, but which he has not been able to do until he is thoroughly sick of her physically. He kisses her passionately when they start going out at the beginning.
Philip, burrowing as was his habit into the state of his feelings, discussing with himself continually his condition, came to the conclusion that he could only cure himself of his degrading passion by making Mildred his mistress. It was sexual hunger that he suffered from, and if he could satisfy this he might free himself from the intolerable chains that bound him. (M 275)
Contradictory to what is just quoted above that Philip continues with his self-inspection, Lane insists that "[t]hroughout this period, the narrative characterizes Carey's relationship with Mildred by a similar resistance to 'self-analysis'" (134). It is as if Lane refuses to acknowledge what Maugham says because it happens to be different from the point he tries to make.

Lane continues: "Additional complications soon emerge; Carey meets Mildred in the company of another male friend, Dunsford" (134). Let's get the timeline straight. Philip does not meet Mildred in the company of Dunsford after being hopelessly obsessed with her. As a matter of fact, it is Dunsford who has first spotted Mildred, a waitress in a shop in Parliament Street, and persuades Philip to go with him in order to give him courage to speak to her.

Philip/Hayward - England/Paris/Heidelberg: Place of Exile for Who and Where?


Lane analyses the significance of Britain and Philip's attraction to foreign places: "Formerly, Britain's border signified to Carey an intractable demand for marriage, family, and sexual normativity from which he fled by adopting Paris and Heidelberg as 'a place of exile'" (561). When he returns to Britain, however, Carey considers himself 'at home' though Britain cannot resolve his internal displacements and psychic dissociations (564)" (141).

Let's tackle the quotes that Lane cites as evidence for his argument one by one. The first reference he uses about Paris and Heidelberg as "a place of exile" is a passage on Hayward, not Philip, and the "place of exile" in fact is England, not Paris nor Heidelberg:
He [Philip] understood that Hayward was being driven by an uneasiness in his soul which he could not account for. Some power within him made it seem necessary to go and fight for his country. It was strange, since he considered patriotism no more than a prejudice, and, flattering himself on his cosmopolitanism, he had looked upon England as a place of exile. (M 452)
As for the second reference about Philip feeling "at home" in Britain, the passage is really about Philip's  remembrance of his yearning for his home during his first term at King's School when he realizes that he is completely broke:
He [Philip] was so taken aback that he did not know what else to do than to go on at the hospital; he had a vague hope that something would turn up; he could not quite believe that what was happening to him was true; and he remembered how during his first term at school he had often thought his life was a dream from which he would awake to find himself once more at home. (M 455)

Sally and Philip / Maugham's Marriage


Lane quotes Theodore Dreiser about the ending, that he finds it strange that some intimacies have happened between Sally and Philip; but in fact, this is quite obvious. After Sally gives Philip a goodbye kiss: "His senses overwhelmed him like a flood of rushing waters. He drew her into the darker shadow of the hedge" (M 553).

When Lane talks about Maugham's marriage and its failure in the footnote, of all the available biographies published before 1995 he has to choose John Beverly Nichol's A Case of Human Bondage, which is by no means a reliable source at all.

Conclusion 


The conclusion lacks persuasion and an odd sentence strikes me particularly: "Although the text refuses to investigate the meaning of these drives..."(144), I wonder how the text can refuse or accept anything... Rather, it would seem that Lane refuses to read the text as it is.

After reading the chapter, I cannot help but have the impression that Lane has read the theories of Girard and Sedgwick, which impress him and then he flips through Of Human Bondage here and there, writing the analysis from his memory of a distant reading of the novel. Otherwise, it is difficult to explain the errors. His deep conviction in the queer theory leads him to misread the texts and tempts him to quote passages out of their contexts.

Let us end with a passage from The Moon and Sixpence (1919). As a form of introduction, Maugham begins with the studies on Strickland's life after he died. His son, who is a reverend, has written a hagiographical account of his father's life and refutes the claim that there was anything wrong with the marriage of his parents:
Personally I think it was rash of Mr. Strickland, in refuting the account which had gained belief of a certain "unpleasantness" between his father and mother, to state that Charles Strickland in a letter written from Paris had described her as "an excellent woman," since Dr. Weitbrecht-Rotholz was able to print the letter in facsimile, and it appears that the passage referred to ran in fact as follows: God damn my wife. She is an excellent woman. I wish she was in hell. [2]

Notes:

[1] Maugham, Somerset W. Of Human Bondage. New York: Doubleday & Co., 1936. From here onwards passages from this book will be referred to as (M page no.) to distinguish the references from Lane's chapter.

[2] Maugham, Somerset W. The Moon and Sixpence. New York: George H. Doran, 1919. p. 13.


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