Late last night I received a note from a friend about his essay, “My Wounded Constitution,” in The Brooklyn Rail. Going on line and reading the essay was painful—Jason has been sick for a while and, although we speak often, I can never get much information out of him. He can’t bring himself to speak more than a sentence or two about his condition. Turns out he needed to write it down and in that way sift through the bits and pieces of suffering, the shard or two of humility, the short, frayed string of self-awareness. That is how he is, who he is.
He also realizes that I comprehend and process the written word better than those spoken in a conversation. I need the time, the solitude to take ideas apart and put them back together in a way I can understand. (It’s not really a handicap, more just the way I have managed to deal with a slight disability.) My user name is P Carey, shortened from Philip Carey, the protagonist of W. Somerset Maugham’s Of Human Bondage. In a name, revealing something of myself and paying homage to a book that has had a great impact on my life. The novel is also one that taught me the importance of reading seriously.
Maugham’s novel begins in shadows and chill, with nine-year-old Philip being taken from his bed and brought to visit his dying mother. His father, we learn, died only months earlier.
The day broke gray and dull. The clouds hung heavily, and there was a rawness in the air that suggested snow. A woman servant came into a room in which a child was sleeping and drew the curtains. She glanced mechanically at the house opposite, a stucco house with a portico, and went to the child's bed.There begins Philip’s story of self-discovery, intellectual growth, and varied experience as he is to become a ward of his uncle, the vicar of a small village in Kent. If it’s possible to complicate even more the life of an orphan, we discover that Philip was born with a club foot. The story takes us from there to Philip’s youth in Kent, his education in England and Germany, his embrace then rejection of established religion, his failed attempt at becoming an accountant, his move to Paris to live the Bohemian life and study art, the betrayals and disappointments, his eventual study of medicine, his loves, his losses, and finally his proposal of marriage.
Beginning in darkness, so to speak, it ends in light.
He smiled and took her hand and pressed it. They got up and walked out of the gallery. They stood for a moment at the balustrade and looked at Trafalgar Square. Cabs and omnibuses hurried to and fro, and crowds passed, hastening in every direction, and the sun was shining.Maugham’s title comes from Part IV of Spinoza’s Ethics, wherein he observes that “[h]uman infirmity in moderating and checking the emotions I name bondage: for, when a man is a prey to his emotions, he is not his own master, but lies at the mercy of fortune: so much so, that he is often compelled, while seeing that which is better for him, to follow that which is worse.”
Despite the obvious reference, this isn’t just a novel about learning to “check” one’s emotions (emotional bondage)—Philip never seems to be able truly to do so—but also about our actual limitations as human beings (physical and even intellectual bondage). What initially captured me in the novel was Philip’s continual quest for happiness in all the wrong places: in his love of heartless women and faithless friends, in his search for meaning in art and literature and music, in his constant need to travel, in his trust in mankind. Despite the hardships recorded and the heartbreak experienced, as a teenager marooned in a small town in the south, I so wanted to be in those places, to experience those things, meet such people; I was willing to endure heartache and betrayal and humiliation for these experiences.
The richness of Philip’s experiences run the gamut of love and hate, riches to poverty to middling, from innocence to experience, and ignorance to knowledge. At the end of the novel, capitulating to a normal existence, he observes that “the simplest pattern, that in which a man was born, worked, married, had children, and died, was likewise the most perfect.”
Yet, understanding Philip as I did at the time, I deeply sensed—even hoped—that he was simply lying when he comes to this conclusion. Surely he must understand that his marriage and job and family will mean the end of who he was becoming up until that time in his life? I loved the book but probably completely missed the point.
I first read this book as a young man in the mid-70s, and, in an effort to measure my own resolve, reread it in 2000 soon after the birth of my son and his diagnoses of cerebral palsy and agenesis of the corpus callosum. In between, I had the fortune to travel widely, fall in love with heatless women, trust in faithless friends, disappoint more than a few of my loved ones, seek comfort in music, knowledge in literature, and pleasure in art; and despite a life of virtual penury, I always considered myself rich in experience and almost happy.
As if echoing Philip’s conscious choice of stillness, my son has taught me to take more pleasure in simpler things, to take joy—as Spinoza explained—in the concomitant thing over the expectation of the conceived thing.
So, last night after reading my friend’s confessions of human failure, I understood more clearly that he, my son, and Maugham might all be telling me the same damn thing: there is solace in who I am where I am, in accepting and embracing the humanness of my condition.
Still, to be perfectly honest, I want them to be lying to me.