Wednesday, 27 March 2013

Quotes: Looking Back (1962) by W. Somerset Maugham

[On his wife:]

I do not want to go back to the past, but you cannot have forgotten the circumstances under which we married. I think under these circumstances you should be very well satisfied if you get from your husband courtesy and consideration, kindness and affection; but really you cannot expect a passionate love. [...] I married you because I thought you loved me and I could not bear to think that in a life in which I did not find much to praise you should suffer for something which was innocent. I married you because I was prepared to pay for my folly and selfishness, and I married you because I thought it the best thing for your happiness and for Elizabeth's welfare, but I did not marry you because I loved you, and you were only too well aware of that. Why now should you torment me with reproaches that I do not love you? When you married me it was with your eyes open and you accepted that - it is something that I bitterly regret, I promise you, I wish with all my heart I loved you - and yet you treat me as though I had caused you a wilful injury.

I did everything I could for you and when I couldn't do what you wanted I do not feel I deserved the hard and cruel things you said to me. You want my affection and I have given it to you - you do not know how much - but you seem to have done all you could to kill it. Do you know that no one in all my life has said the things you have said to me? No one has ever complained of me and nagged me and harassed me as you have. How can you expect me to preserve my affection for you? You have terrorized me.

Syrie was an admirable hostess, amiable, lively and charming.

Syrie stayed in Geneva for some weeks. She was bored. She had no resources in herself, but depended upon others for her entertainment.

She was not interested in the sights of Rome. She was no reader. Nor was she a needlewoman. The days seemed interminable.

One evening when Syrie and I were spending the evening alone she surprised me by saying, ''It's funny that people say 'The Circle' is your best play. I wasn't very nice to you while you were writing it.'' She wasn't indeed. She would make me scenes that lasted till two or three in the morning, and I went to bed exhausted to get up in the morning to write amusing dialogue. One of Syrie's most frequent complaints was that she had no influence over me. In vain I protested that so far as I knew no one had any particular influence over me.

One day, out of a blue sky, she said to me, ''If you divorced me you wouldn't try to take my child from me, would you?'' She could not have told me more plainly that she had a lover. This did not surprise me since one of her bosom friends had already appraised me of the fact. In point of fact she had not one, but two, I knew both and had a very poor opinion of either. They didn't last long.

Some of Syrie's activities made me nervous. She was none too scrupulous in her dealings with customers. I was afraid she would get into trouble and I did not fancy the publicity that might ensue. I need not have worried. Syrie was prudent and on receiving a lawyer's letter would return the money that had been paid her and take back the fake that she had sold as an antique. Once she escaped prosecution only by hair's breadth.

Syrie's women friends, whether a kept woman or woman attached for long years to a man who either could not or would not marry her, were ever haunted by a sense of insecurity. Men were fickle. So long as a woman maintained her influence over him, which, when it came down to brass tacks, meant being able to persuade him to do something he didn't want to do, she was safe. Moreover, the influence she had gave her a pleasant sense of power mingled with a faint, good-humoured feeling of contempt for the man who could be so easily cajoled. But this is more guesswork and, I daresay, not very plausible.

[On his sharing everything with Walter Payne in their youth:]
He was very good-looking and had no difficulty in getting girls to go to bed with him and when he was through with them he passed them over to me. They were small-part actresses, shopgirls or clerks in an office. About one evening a week Walter would arrange to go out and the girl I was then friends with came and dined with me, after which we indulged in sexual congress. Later in the evening we dressed and went downstairs, I put her in a cab, paid the fare and made an appointment with her for the following week. There was no romance in it, no love, only appetite. On looking back, these experiences of mine seem dreadfully sordid, but after all, I was in my early twenties and my sexual proclivities demanded expression.

[On homosexuality:]
It was not till long after that it dawned upon me that the trouble these two men [Brooks and an unidentified American] took to keep me interested was due not to the fact that I listened to their conversation entranced nor to any kindness they may have felt for a lonely, ignorant boy of sixteen, but to their concupiscence. I was so innocent (after three years at a public school!) that it never entered my head that they should want anything more from me than my company. If they made advances to me my blank incomprehension must have utterly baffled them.

[On memorial service:]
The relict of the defunct arranges with the parson who is to conduct the service what the cost will be. Letters are written to friends and acquaintances begging them to attend. A reporter is seated at the church door and take their names as they come in. Space has been bought in the Times so that next day their names shall be printed, and such is the passion for publicity that sways our world today that those who for some reason - absence from London, a more important engagement or merely indifference - have not attended take care that, notwithstanding, their names shall not be omitted. If the church is crowded, if the street is blocked with the cars that have brought the persons invited, the service may be reckoned a success. It is in fact just as much a social occasion as a cocktail party; it is moreover less expensive and gets more publicity. The luncheon parties that follow have a peculiar savour. Those present, as they sip their dry Martinis, cannot help feeling a certain complacency because they are still alive.

[On one alternative scenario of his life:]
Then with a scholarship I should in due course have gone up to Cambridge as my brothers had done. It is just possible that I might have been elected to a fellowship, and in that case, though with my stammer I could not have been of much use as a tutor or a lecturer, I might, like Bradley, have passed the rest of my life in the seclusion of college rooms.Though I could never have hoped to write such a fascinating, tantalizing work as ''Appearance and Reality'', I might have produced at discreet intervals a number of dull but learned books on aspects of French literature and in due course have brought an uneventful life to a decorous end.

[On God, immortality and Christianity:]
I believe neither in the existence of God nor in the immortality of the soul. It is generally agreed by rationalists that though it is impossible to prove that God does not exist there are no good reasons to believe that he does. Nor are there good reasons to believe in the immortality of the soul. I for my part cannot understand how people can still believe in a transcendent God and in an afterlife. When one considers the vast extend of the expanding universe, with the millions of galaxies millions of light waves away from us, one can hardly fail to harbor the notion, paradoxical as it may seem, that there is no place for God in it. I look upon Christianity as a dying religion. [...] Christianity is incredible. I ask myself whether these Archbishops and Bishops really believe what they preach. They are presumably men of more than common intelligence or they wouldn't have risen to positions of importance. Do they really believe in the Virgin Birth, the miracles Jesus is claimed to have performed, and the Resurrection?

[On Gerald Haxton:]
His death was a bitter grief to me. We had gone through a great deal together. He had grave faults. He was a heavy drinker and a reckless gambler. He had great merits. He had immense vitality. He was fearless. He was always ready for an adventure and could turn his hand to anything, whether it was to persuade a stubborn car to behave reasonably or in the wilderness to cook a savory dinner. Once, in Sarawak, when we were being rowed down the river, our boat was swamped by the tidal wave which is called ''the bore'' and we were flung into the water. I was very nearly drowned. Gerald saved my life. His gift for getting on friendly terms with all sorts of people had been of inestimable use to me. But for him I should not have got the material for many of the stories I wrote. At least on one occasion he gave me story ready made.

[On “Footprints in the Jungle”:]
One evening I grew tired of waiting for Gerald, who was with a group of fellows drinking at the bar, and sat down to my dinner. I had nearly finished when he staggered in. “I know I’m drunk,” he said, “but I’ve got a damned good story for you.” He told it to me and I wrote it. I called it “Footprints in the Jungle”. I don't think I can have written it very well; it was a murder story and when it was printed some critics found fault with it because it was very soon obvious who had committed the murder. But I was not trying to write a who-done-it. What interested me was something very different. The woman and her lover had killed her husband, but the crime could never be brought home to them. Though the members of the community, planters, traders, agents, doctors - and their wives - were well aware of the facts, they continued to live on the best of terms with the widow and her lover. They married and, in short, lived happily ever afterwards. I came to know and found them very agreeable. They were kindly and hospitable. I was pretty sure that they had never been troubled by remorse; it was impossible not to like them, for they were very nice. Human nature is very odd.

[On "Why I Am Not a Christian":]

Some years ago [1927] Bertrand Russell delivered a lecture which he afterwards published as a little book called “Why I Am Not a Christian.” I have the greatest admiration for Russell. He is eminent both as a mathematician and as a philosopher. Moreover he writes uncommonly good English. I found “Why I Am Not a Christian” disappointing. I think Russell is not fair to Jesus. “I am concerned,” he writes, “with Christ as he appears in the Gospels, taking the Gospel narrative as it stands.” That is natural enough since the Gospels are the only source from which anyone can learn anything about Jesus and His ministry. The Gospels were not written till some decades after the Crucifixion. […] The disciples of Jesus were not educated men; they were not even very intelligent. They were apt to squabble between themselves and to be envious of one another. Their merit was that they loved Jesus. It is strange to me that Bertrand Russell with his great intelligence should have accepted their testimony as, if I may put it so, gospel truth. I am inclined to think on the contrary that they were highly unreliable. 

Now, every novelist knows that the one thing he may not do is to let the persons of his novel act out of character. How much more necessary is it to avoid this error when the writer is dealing not with fiction, but with what he claims is fact. There is a passage in St. Mark’s Gospel in which he relates how Jesus sent forth the disciples two by two. “And he said unto them, In what place soever ye enter into an house, there abide till ye depart from that place. And whosoever shall not receive you, nor hear you, when you depart thence, shake off the dust under your feet for a testimony against them. Verily I say unto you, It shall be more tolerable for Sodom and Gomorrah in the day judgment, than for that city.” The threat is shocking. The householder might have had good reason to refuse the hospitality the two disciples demanded. There might have been illness in the house; he might not have had room or money to accommodate them; he might have been a pious Jew satisfied with the faith of his fathers. In any case the punishment does not fit the crime. It looks to me much more like an invention of the missionaries to assure themselves that they could count on board and lodging. 

Bertrand Russell in this little book disparages Christ’s character. He blames Him for what would be grave faults if He were a divine being, omnipotent and omniscient, but which would be merely errors if He was no more than a man. If so, it is no defect in his character that He believed in hellfire. It was the current belief of the time and He could have doubted it as little as He doubted that the earth was flat. He certainly thought that His Second Coming would occur in clouds of glory before the death of the people who were living at that time. He was mistaken, but that was surely no defect of character. Further, Russell is shocked by Christ’s “vindictive fury” with those who would not listen to His teaching. That looks to me again as no more than an invention of the evangelists in face of persecution. It is out of character. The beauty of Christ’s character very plainly appears in the touching incident which is related by St. Mark. “And they brought young children to Him, that He should touch them: and His disciples rebuked them that brought them. But when Jesus saw it, He was much displeased and said unto them, Suffer the little children to come unto me and forbid them not: for of such is the kingdom of God… And He took them up in His arms, put His hands upon them, and blessed them.” Jesus was a more charitable, compassionate and reasonable being than the evangelists knew. 


Such of the disciples as had remained faithful to Jesus after the Crucifixion went out to preach the new faith, and it may be supposed that they used as the foundation of their message the material which is known as Q.[1] Now, everyone who is used to speak in public knows that there is no better way to enhance the interest of his audience than to tell a story. It would be only natural if the converts were more impressed by the stories of Christ’s miracles than by His doctrine. The preachers may well have thought to increase the power and glory of Jesus by ascribing to Him the power to perform them. But everyone who tells a story over and over again knows how apt he is to embroider on it to make it more effective and in the end there is little left of the incident that gave occasion to the story. The disciples were orientals, with the oriental’s disposition to exaggerate and it is likely enough that during the forty years that elapsed between the Crucifixion and the writing of St. Mark’s Gospel the incidents related came to be accepted as facts.

This of course is mere conjecture. It has a certain plausibility in the fact that Jesus was claimed to have performed two miracles which are little to his credit. One is the story of the swine. “Now there was there nigh unto the mountain a great head [sic] of swine feeding. And all the devils besought him, saying, ‘Send us into the swine that we may enter into them’ And forthwith Jesus gave them leave. And the unclean spirits went out, and entered into the swine: and the herd ran violently down a steep place… and were choked in the sea.” It is a horrible story. The other is that of the fig tree. It is told by Mark and repeated by Matthew. “And on the morrow, when they were come from Bethany, He was hungry: and seeing a fig tree afar off having leaves, He came, if haply He might find anything thereon: and when He came to it, He found nothing but leaves; for the time of figs was not yet.” Jesus cursed the fig tree and it withered away. It was a peevish, petulant action which was surely not in the character of Jesus. The two stories reek of their untruth.[2] 

[1] Maugham mentions earlier this mysterious “collection of the sayings of Jesus” which is not known whether it was a written document or an oral testimony.
[2] Both are mentioned by Russell when he “disparages Christ’s character”.

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