Wednesday, September 27, 2017

Travelogue 771 – September 27
Faust in Tahiti

I’m reading the last bits of ‘Moon and Sixpence’. I read when I can, mostly during short trips on the metro and train. It’s rare that I get the time to stop and read over a pint, like I have been used to doing. And so my sense of continuity in the narrative is broken. My schedule isn’t the only factor. There’s something in the fashioning of the story that conveys a sense of fragmentation. It’s offered as a collection of disjointed memories, first the narrator’s own and then those the narrator has collected in Tahiti. By the end of the book, the connection between the narrator and the ghostly protagonist is so attenuated that his, the narrator’s, seems an increasingly lonely voice.

And this problem of the narrator becomes the central one of the book, finally. His insistent presence is the knot to be untied. If the book were a biography, why isn’t it narrated from the heavens, as is usually done? If it’s a salacious re-telling of the Gauguin of legend, why not simply bang out a lurid novel about the bad-boy artist? No, I believe the book quite self-consciously re-directs away from the painter. I’ve seen the book characterized as satirical, but that assumes that the book is about the painter. I would say it’s more of a lament, and more central than the painter’s story is what lies just below the narrator’s apparent equanimity.

I’ve noted the persistent theme of apology through the work, as the narrator apologizes for himself and how little he knows. He apologizes for his failures as a writer. He apologizes for being a mediocrity. It might seem as though the apologies grow more anxious as he realizes the contrast he provides to the alluring figure of Strickland, a comparison increasingly embarrassing, as though he were the stunted boy introducing the school’s basketball star before the whole assembly.

The deeper anxiety, overriding his self-consciousness, is the moral riddle that Strickland presents. It’s hard to say whether the narrator discovers or invents the riddle, but it clearly claims all his attention.

He says of Strickland, ‘There was in him something primitive.’ He says, ‘I had again the feeling that he was possessed of a devil; but you could not say that it was a devil of evil, for it was a primitive force that existed before good and ill.’ And the quality matched with ‘primitive’, the quality cited with almost irritating regularity, is ‘genius’. This combination of qualities troubles the narrator. Is it wedded to the perception of his own inadequacy? Does he lament his sophistication and morality as much as he does his lack of genius? Is it a deal with the devil that he is wishing he might have been offered? He says of the writer, ultimately of himself, that he ‘recognizes in himself an artistic satisfaction in the contemplation of evil which a little startles him.’

This is what we inherit from those times, the fin de si├Ęcle and the beginning of modernism, its complicated stars in arts and literature, contemporaries of Freud: we inherit a troubling ambivalence about our powers. We wish for genius, but we are anxious. We have a suspicion that genius emerges from darkness, the way the Greeks saw Creation as emergent from Chaos. Hell is a place in the psyche and genius is granted by the devil.

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Travelogue 770 – September 20
Nothing Could be More Ordinary

There are many things we say we can’t help. It’s a common disclaimer during the course of our days. One thing I’m sure we can’t help is our wisdom. When I first read ‘Moon and Sixpence’, many years ago, I was quite taken with the romance of the story, and I would that I could surrender to that innocence again.

Instead what communicates itself most insistently is the regret. There is a lot of apology in this book, apology for mediocrity. The narrator is a writer, and one who confesses his style is dated and limited. ‘I am on the shelf now,’ he admits. Of the younger generation of writers, he says, ‘[T]heir passion seems to me a little anemic and their dreams a trifle dull.’ When he finally sees the artwork of the book’s hero, Charles Strickland, he admits he has no faculty to see the brilliance. He experiences no thrill, though his painter friend, Dirk Stroeve, another mediocrity, has repeatedly asserted the genius.

The contrast to mediocrity is concentrated in the experimental character of Strickland. He’s a force of nature, possessed by creativity, having no choice but to paint. Nominally, Strickland is a sketch or a caricature of Paul Gauguin, who has passed away only sixteen years before the publication of Maugham’s book. But perhaps Strickland is even further removed from Gauguin: a caricature of the myth collaboratively drawn by Gauguin and his public. The narrator prepares us in the first pages. ‘The faculty for myth is innate in the human race,’ he writes. ‘It is the protest of romance against the commonplace of life.’

What follows is something complex. The surface layer is a story about Gauguin. There are grains of truth among all the exotic colours – Gauguin was somewhat wild, after all, -- but the caricature begins to stand free of its source, and the second layer is indulgent. We venture unashamed into the racy tale told by the gossips. Strickland is abominable, but his genius redeems him. ‘His faults are accepted as the necessary complement to his merits,’ the narrator says of popular opinion. We are very familiar with this story template by now.

In this second layer of the story is revealed some loathing for the ordinary. ‘Nothing could be more ordinary,’ the narrator says about the Strickland family on his first observation. He goes on to comment, without provocation, ‘… I felt in such an existence, the share of the majority, something amiss. I recognized its social value. I saw its ordered happiness, but a fever in my blood asked for a wilder course. There seemed to me something alarming in such easy delights.’

Conveniently, Strickland immediately runs amok. He leaves his family without warning and moves to Paris to paint. The real Gauguin did indeed leave his family and paint. But the real Gauguin had already been painting and exhibiting before he left his job and family. Moreover, the stock market hadn’t been treating him so well in his final days there. Maybe the decision wasn’t as impulsive and precipitate as legend had it.

The narrator catches up with Strickland soon afterward. ‘I tell you I’ve got to paint,’ the man says. ‘I can’t help myself.’ The narrator asks him pointedly what would happen if he simply wasn’t any good. The painter replies, ‘A man falls into the water it doesn’t matter how he swims, well or badly: he’s got to get out or else he’ll drown.’

It’s heady stuff, and this could be said to be the theme of the second layer to the book, the intoxication in strong myth.

Monday, September 11, 2017

Travelogue 769 – September 11

I’m re-reading ‘Moon and Sixpence’, and it’s something of a guilty pleasure. This is Maugham’s famous novel based on the life of Paul Gauguin. More accurately, it’s based on the romanticized version of Gauguin’s life, popularized after his death in 1903. The book was published in 1919. I’m sure that Maugham knew the difference between myth and reality. He even travelled to the South Pacific to research. I think his point was to explore, (perhaps to exploit), the mythology of the great artist. It was more of a French phenomenon at the time, the lionizing of writers and painters. Since Maugham was born and raised until ten in Paris, bridging the Channel came naturally. Titillating England with the spectre of the rogue genius must have been good fun.

It’s a guilty pleasure. I’ve described before how I discovered a cache of Maugham at the Oudemanhuispoort book market in Amsterdam, and I couldn’t help indulging. I read him without critical judgement when I was young. Now I’m saddled with some perspective. The disparaging words of one of my heroes, Christopher Hitchens, echoes in my mind. He called him ‘Poor Old Willie’ in an article in the Atlantic, and said his prose was clumsy and banal. Yeah, well, I still the old man. I like the understated romanticism, the reassuring rhythm of his prose.

This morning I’m standing at the door to the stairwell down to the street, standing outside on the first-floor balcony extending around the inside of my apartment complex. It’s early. The sun has risen only within the last hour. Low clouds are flying: the weather has been so consistently inconsistent that I barely register it anymore. If it’s not raining, it just has, and just will. The grounds are wet and the sky is grey. But there, suddenly, arcing above the roofs of the compound, shimmers the full rainbow. It stops me, as a rainbow will. It interrupts routine thoughts and opens a door to something fresh, perhaps even some perspective. This must be the reason the Greeks called the rainbow a messenger from the gods. It has the authority to halt the mundane.

If ‘Poor Old Willie’ – not so old when he wrote ‘Moon and Sixpence’ – was moved to pick among the debris left by Gauguin and pick among the fables Gauguin inspired, wasn’t he just making a record of the appearance of a Greek rainbow, an appearance of the Sublime? That much may seem obvious. The riddle is in deciding what the message may have been. Or, even more intriguing, whether the prism at work is Gauguin himself, his paintings, his persona, his story, shrewd exploitation of the exotic, or the impersonal machinery of myth-making.

Thursday, September 07, 2017

Travelogue 768 – September 7
There’s a Wobble

There’s a wobble in my back wheel, and I have to take the bike in to the shop today. I don’t need any further drag as I resume my long commute to work, crossing the full diameter of Rotterdam, along the arcing line of the Nieuwe Maas River. I’m out of shape, after the month of sitting on trains and sitting in the classroom. I don’t need the extra work of a bad wheel. The seasons are changing, and fall brings steady winds from the west. The winds carry in showers. The ride is a long one.

The transition from certification course back to work hasn’t been too bad. It’s just a change in the lessons I’m writing. I’m writing mostly for the first-year students, fresh and both bold and timid. Many are eager to learn. It inspires me to work hard so as not to let them down. I know about the disillusionment built into systems of higher education.

When I’m not writing new lessons, I’m finishing my summer reading. ‘Points of View’ is one of the books I picked up last month in Amsterdam. During lunch breaks in the certification program, I walked toward the old university buildings along the Oudezijds Achterburgwal. I strolled down the narrow Oudemanhuispoort, where the old book market has operated daily since the nineteenth century.

It’s not surprising I found some Somerset Maugham. There’s the whiff of the forgotten about him these days, and yet he’s always there, in every second-hand collection. I discovered him many years ago, and he had his impact on me. His prose was always a pleasure, calm and self-assured. Mr. Maugham knew how to tell a story. With time, the stories came to seem over-ripe, too sentimental for my tastes, but I could still find the prose soothing. It seemed to be composed of common sense. And he was rarely as sensible as he was in his last collection of essays. He wrote about Goethe and about Bhagavan Ramana Maharshi. He wrote about the short story, praising Chekhov and Mansfield, and sniping at James. He wrote about the Goncourts and the French authors of public journals. Maugham had a rare sympathy for the writer, always reminding the reader that the writer had to make a living. That didn’t corrupt the art, but surely gave it shape. And this from an author as famous in his day for his riches as his art.

I’m not an author, but I live the poverty of an author. I live some of the joys, too. Last night, we held first auditions for my new play. These we staged at my college. It’s amateur theatre. Two of the people auditioning were students. Two more were more serious, managing the patchwork lives of actors, juggling work with rehearsal and performance. The actors were better, but still I enjoyed the performances of the amateurs more. There’s something spontaneous happening. There’s more communication.

The guy in my cycle shop expresses surprise that I haven’t noticed four broken spokes in my back wheel. He asks if I’ve been carrying something heavy. I say myself. I say my backpack, always stuffed with as much as it can carry. I say sometimes my baby girl, big for her age. My neighbour has donated a seat that sits right above the back tire. The cycle guy shrugs. He asks if I travel over rough roads. I say always.