Monday, 7 September 2015

Analysis: Photo, Writing, and Ars Rhetorica in "Virtue" by W. Somerset Maugham

Virtue by W. Somerset Maugham
Virtue by W. Somerset Maugham

"Virtue." Redbook 80.6 (1943): 36–7,80–1.


Do not mistake this "Virtue" with the short story "Virtue" first published in February 1931 in Cosmopolitan, which is collected in Six Stories Written in the First Person Singular of the same year.

This "Virtue" forms part of Maugham's WWII propaganda work, a duty that Maugham felt more and more a burden.

Nevertheless, it is interesting because of a nice photo by George Platt Lynes, in what seems to be a favourite Maugham posture, leaning his head against his palm; because of the content, which relates closely to my last post on "Somerset Maugham and Posterity" by Glenway Wescott, about professionalism of writers; because of being a perfect example of the art of rhetoric that Maugham practises.

I will deal with these one by one, from the easiest first.

Photo by George Platt Lynes


W. Somerset Maugham - photo by George Platt Lynes
W. Somerset Maugham - photo by George Platt Lynes

If you are not familiar with George Platt Lynes (1907–1955), he was the the photographer of a more exposed photo of Maugham fully dressed, measuring provocatively a male nude. This photo is completely different of course, with the solemnity that suits the occasion. It was a pleasant surprise to see it in the magazine.

Writing as Profession


What first drew my attention to this essay was Maugham's explication of writing as profession, which consists of the points that Glenway Wescott made on his behalf a few years later when asserting Maugham's claim for posterity.
I am a writer by profession, and I discovered long ago that writing was a whole-time job. People are wrong who suppose that you pound a typewriter for a certain number of hours a day and that is the end of it. I have been told by business men that when they left their office in the evening, they put their work completely out of their minds and did not think of it again till they went back to their office next morning. That may be possible for a business man; it isn't possible for a writer. For a writer is not made by one or two books; he is made by a body of work, and he can only produce that if he deliberately takes steps to develop his personality, enlarge his experience and increase his knowledge. He must read widely and wisely; he must meet all sorts and conditions of men to gain an intimate knowledge of human nature; and he must put himself in the way of experiencing the ordinary vicissitudes of life which will be the material of his work. (36–7)

Considering Maugham's consistent efforts to dispel common misconceptions of what a writer is and what being one entails, he can be called an advocate for the profession.

Virtue and Freedom: Ars Rhetorica


Now I come to the point that I am most interested in exploring. "Virtue" is a good example of Maugham's use of ars rhetorica (the art of rhetoric), subdue in his peace time creations, pointed in his war time contributions. Against his personal philosophy of the purpose of writing (which is to entertain, as his readers are more than familiar with), he penned France at War (1940), Strictly Personal (1941), a series of essays, a novel (The Hour Before the Dawn 1942) for the American audience during the years 1940–1945. No wonder they left him exhausted and dissatisfied. I surmise it is like giving up one's own belief for the abstract greater good. Don't mistake me, he did it willingly and gladly without a moment of hesitation, which I doubt not, as a responsible citizen serving his country in the best way that he knows. No cynicism involved at all in this. In his later writings, the contemplation on ethics and the nature of goodness is dominant in every way. If ever one wonders what the value of education/reading/thinking (whatever you like to call it) is, it is right in front of you: it has none unless it leads to right action (Don Fernando 1935, The Summing Up 1938).

At the time when "Virtue" was published in Redbook, the United States just experienced a disastrous drawback at the Battle of the Kasserine Pass in February 1943 due to misunderstandings and mistrust between the British and American leaders.

When I start to analyse "Virtue" I see how Maugham builds his argument gradually. It is evident that he has put a lot of care to persuade his readers to agree with his point.

He begins by establishing his audience and the premise with common opinions. He is not talking about heroics or something extraordinary, but "the ordinary virtue of decent people" (36), which involves basically all his readers. No one would like to admit to be "indecent." The definition of this ordinary virtue is simple: "integrity, loyalty, unselfishness and common sense" (36), which I assume most people (if not in our time) would like to think that they possess.

Cleverly, Maugham doesn't base his persuasiveness on the character of the speaker/writer. He doesn't claim to be any better than his fellows and he doesn't want to serve as role model. Instead he uses negation to deny any possibility of being taken as self-righteous, especially as an outsider: "I do not wish to preach. I have no dogmatic statements to make" (36). Furthermore, the negative statements serve as element of surprise for the beginning of the essay.

Instead of talking about recent events, Maugham goes back to the fall of France. Firstly, it is neutral, avoiding mentioning the tension between the two allied countries; secondly, it is conveniently labeled as the key event that the war was still going on then, which inevitably drew the States in, and which, if you think twice, is arguable. But as Aristotle wrote centuries ago, the audience as a crowd is emotional and possesses not too high an intelligence.

In the first part of the essay, Maugham employs more rhetorical devices, such as anaphora:
The defeat of the French has been ascribed to the antagonism of the General Staff to the régime of the Third Republic, which made them willing to see it swept away even at the cost of the ruin of their country. It has been ascribed to the fact that the French generals, in their sloth and conceit and notwithstanding abundant warning, sought to fight this war with the methods of the last. It has been ascribed to the treachery of politicians. It has been ascribed to the fear of bolshevism that haunted the possessing classes, and led them to suppose that they might well be better off under German rule than under the communism which they thought was the only alternative. And it has been ascribed to the ill-will of the working classes, who thought the employers were taking advantage of the war to deprive them of the reforms that had been instituted under a socialist government, and so obstructed the war effort with strikes and sabotage. (36; italics mine)

[...]

Too many politicians were unscrupulous; too many newspapers were venal; too many employers were grasping and tyrannical; too many working people were dishonest and avaricious. (36; italics mine)

The long train of attributes in parallel sentences almost creates a hypnotic effect. I assume these reasons were widely circulated at the time, and thus the readers were by no means unfamiliar with them, and agreed with them too.

So, after getting the answer "yes" Maugham has something to wake them up: "All these were contributory causes to the French defeat; but my own opinion is that they were symptoms and effects of a far more fundamental cause, and that the general lack of morality in France" (36).

Naturally you say "yes" yet again. Besides, "moral" and "the French"? Maugham does address this immediately before you even associate morality with sex: "And I must remind you that I do not mean sexual morality" (36).

No one likes to be stupidly manipulated. Maugham quotes Plato to warn against totalitarianism. Of course everyone knows about Plato, and of course the Republic (which, he gently guides you, is about totalitarian states) has its attractions, but in practice it just won't do: "From all accounts we have of life in the totalitarian countries, it appears that the condition of the people is worse than it ever was before" (36). Naturally you nod your head, and perhaps give your two cents.

Now in the middle Maugham mentions the character of the speaker, stating his profession as a writer, who by all means should leave matter of the state to the state:
We live in an age of specialism, and I was a specialist. When I was sick, I did not try to cure myself: I consulted a doctor; when something went wrong with my car, I did not try to put it right: I took it round to a garage. And so it seemed to me reasonable that like the cobbler I should stick to my last and leave the government of my country to those whose business it was to attend to it. (37)

The analogy is irrefutable, and so thus must the conclusion be:
Events have shown me that I was completely wrong. I know now that no one can afford to stand aside from the political life of his time, for his freedom depends on it, and without freedom the good life is impossible. Our democracy is representative. That I may remind you is a form of government in which the citizens elect representatives, who then exercise the function of government. (37)

Then comes the dart (enthymeme):
Democracy can survive only if our representatives are competent, disinterested and honest. [...] But is it likely that we shall choose representatives who are competent and honest unless we are honest and competent ourselves? Shall we choose men who are disinterested if we ourselves are interested? (37)

Now you are trapped, ordinary and decent citizen who possesses integrity, loyalty, unselfishness and common sense.

Have courage!
I put it to you that, in the final analysis, democracy depends on the virtue of the individual. We shall not fulfil our political obligation unless we have integrity; and if we do not fulfil our political obligation, democracy is doomed. (37)

Something more to cheer you up, your iconic president! A quote:
"While the people retain their virtue and vigilance," he [Lincoln] said, "no administration by any extreme of wickedness or folly can seriously injure the government." (37)

It is half way down that Maugham dares mention England, about its political system that promotes honesty. He quotes more authoritative figures, T. H. Green, an unnamed Russian psychologist, Pascal, and comes to the conclusion that we all have a role to play in upholding our freedom by doing our political obligation, especially as parents and teachers, i.e., the role of education, the importance of which the Nazis and the Fascists have already realized. So catch up!

To conclude, he restates that he is not the right person to exhort anyone to virtue (defined as political obligation, uprightness and self-sacrifice) which is the safeguard against the loss of freedom, but it is up to each, as parent and teacher, to set as example for the young. It is only then they can uphold their freedom. Lincoln has the last word: "For the price of freedom is vigilance and virtue" (81).

If at any point I sound flippant it is not meant to be. Whether Maugham enjoyed writing this or not, it is a fine piece of propaganda.

"Virtue" is collected in A Traveller in Romance.


A Traveller in Romance from AbeBooks

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4 comments :

  1. Isn't "A Traveler in Romance" such a great collection and tool for Maugham research?

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    Replies
    1. Definitely. I think together with The Critical Heritage and Stott the trio provides a solid base for starting.

      Delete
  2. Hey, I finally started a Maugham blog of my own. I mention yours in the introduction. I hope you like it.
    http://collectingmaugham.blogspot.com/

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. That's great! It's fun blogging. You make me blush... Thanks for the compliment.

      Delete