What I find especially interesting about Maugham – and what I wished this biography addressed a little more intelligently than it did – is how fast his fame faded. As Hastings points out, Maugham’s works have even been adapted to the screen more times than Conan Doyle’s. Still, today almost everybody knows Conan Doyle, while Maugham’s name is familiar to a very narrow circle of readers. I only know his work so well because in the Soviet Union where I was born censorship limited our familiarity with English-speaking authors of the XXth century to those writers who remained completely untouched by Modernism and continued writing in the outdated realist style. And herein, I believe, lies the main reason for Maugham’s loss of popularity.
Hastings recognizes that
it was not done in highbrow circles to take [Maugham’s] writing seriously.
Hastings’s inadequacy at a serious analysis of Maugham’s legacy reduces her to filling page after page with painstakingly researched minutiae of the author’s daily existence. We find out the names of everybody who visited this extremely hospitable writer at his villa, what the guests ate and drank, where they went after lunch and before afternoon tea. Hastings provides us with names and brief biographies of pretty much everybody Maugham met in his long and active life. We are even regaled with the knowledge that one of the writer’s male lovers used to sit in the patio of Maugham’s villa in pink shorts at a certain point in time, while another lover walked around in very short white shorts out of which his thighs bulged ridiculously, and that Maugham once won $12 at a game of cards (which was far from the only one he played in his life). This wealth of mundane details can be of interest only to the most assiduous of fans. Since I am not one of them, I found those pages of the The Secret Lives of Somerset Maugham: A Biography incredibly tedious.
This biographer’s tendency to disregard what really matters in favor of utterly trivial details manifests itself especially strongly in the last third of the book. Hastings mentions a couple of times in passing Maugham’s “socialist beliefs” but fails to elaborate what they consisted of and how this intensely snobbish writer who spent his life in a relentless pursuit of aristocrats managed to remain any kind of a socialist. Instead of discussing Maugham’s politics, a feat for which this biographer is signally unsuited, Hastings tells us at length what cars the author bought before and after the war, that writer Ian Fleming enjoyed beating his wife with wet towels, and what a lover of Maugham’s lover’s lover (no, there is no typo here) wrote in a letter that had nothing whatsoever to do with Maugham.
The entire effort that Hastings made in writing this book can be summed up in the words of one of my favorite colleagues: “Incompetents abound.”
I started my Thanksgiving break with a plan to relax completely and exorcise the accumulated exhaustion of a very difficult semester. In order to do that, I embarked on a project of reading Selina Hastings’s bulky biography of Somerset Maugham. In case you don’t know, W. Somerset Maugham (1874-1965) was one of the most successful and popular British authors in the period between the two great wars. Today, most people don’t know Somerset Maugham and he isn’t widely read at all. His novel Of Human Bondage is still quite popular. However, his short stories and plays that made Maugham so famous have fallen out of favor with the readers. There are several reasons for that. For one, Maugham was a strong believer in the colonial system of the British Empire. His colonialism jumps off the pages of his short stories and is quite disgusting. He was also a vicious misogynist and made a career out of selling his contempt towards women. Maugham pretty much missed the boat of Modernism and kept writing in a plodding realist style, which was quite unsuited to the realities of the XXth century.
One of Maugham’s greatest strengths as a novelist is his ability to create three-dimensional characters, women as well as men, interacting with one another.
Given to hero-worshipping her subject, Hastings manages not to notice his vitriolic hatred of women. She goes as far as suggesting that the opposite is the case. For this biographer, Maugham was
a man who enjoyed the company of women, who in his fiction and his friendships was so understanding and compassionate toward them.
doctors, diplomats, traders, missionaries, and their women
the traditional feminine occupations of knitting and needlework held no appeal for [his wife] whatsoever.
>I have no idea how I managed to miss Žižek’s On Belief when it first came out. Now, however, I have finally had a chance to read this book by one of the greatest philosophers of out time (actually, the greatest, in my opinion) and I have thoroughly enjoyed it.
Of course, Žižek wouldn’t be true to himself if he didn’t frame this book as yet another failing effort to rescue at least some sad remnants of the Russian Revolution as a genuine transformative and hopeful event. In On Belief, he does this through a very desperate “Stalin – bad, Lenin – good” sort of argument. Of course, anybody who has even the most superficial knowledge of the history of the Russian Revolution realizes that such an argument is non-viable. No amount of quotes from Kant, Hegel and Lacan can dispel the historical reality of Stalin being one of the 4 people who were the closest to Lenin at every step of the way both before and after the revolution. No kind of philosophical casuistry can deny the fact that Stalin was the most faithful and logical, albeit quite plodding, follower of Lenin. It would be great if Žižek would quit flogging the dead horse of the Russian Revolution and realize that the stench the dead horse’s corpse is producing only makes it fit for a speedy burial. Still, even a great philosopher has a right to a small weakness here and there.
Thankfully, Žižek doesn’t spend too much time on these feeble attempts to resuscitate Lenin for the future of humanity. When he is not addressing the traumatic (especially, for someone of his origins) legacy of the Soviet Union and speaks, instead, of the present and the future, Žižek is spectacular. In On Belief, Žižek virulently assaults the contemporary pieties of certain liberal-leaning intellectuals. Their interest in all kinds of New Age philosophies that are supposed to rescue them from the evils of consumerist society deserves the philosopher’s scorn:
The ultimate postmodern irony is thus the strange exchange between Europe and Asia: at the very moment when, at the level of the “economic infrastructure,” “European” technology and capitalism are triumphing world-wide, at the level of “ideological superstructure,” the Judeo-Christian legacy is threatened in the European space itself by the onslaught of the New Age “Asiatic” thought, which, in its different guises, from the “Western Buddhism” (today’s counterpoint to Western Marxism, as opposed to the “Asiatic” Marxism–Leninism) to different “Taos,” is establishing itself as the hegemonic ideology of global capitalism. Therein resides the highest speculative identity of the opposites in today’s global civilization: although “Western Buddhism” presents itself as the remedy against the stressful tension of the capitalist dynamics, allowing us to uncouple and retain inner peace and Gelassenheit, it actually functions as its perfect ideological supplement.
We have all met liberals of this ilk. They spend their lives chasing after a spirituality of a higher order that they have found in quasi-Buddhist practices. Sitting in their incense-smelling rooms, surrounded by paraphernalia they bought in a store that boasts of selling items brought directly from Tibet, they pontificate for hours against the evils of Eurocentrism, flaunt their boringly ideological vegetarianism, and celebrate the supposedly pure and miraculous spiritual, medical and sexual advances of the Easterners. Unsurprisingly, Žižek, who is opposed to any kind of hypocrisy, has something to say about that. The very talk of Eurocentrism is an act of orientalism:
Therein resides the ultimate paradox: the more Europeans try to penetrate the “true” Tibet, the more the very FORM of their endeavor undermines their goal. We should appreciate the full scope of this paradox, especially with regard to “Eurocentrism.” The Tibetans were extremely self-centered: “To them, Tibet was the center of the world, the heart of civilization.” What characterizes the European civilization is, on the contrary, precisely its ex-centered character – the notion that the ultimate pillar of Wisdom, the secret agalma, the spiritual treasure, the lost object–cause of desire, which we in the West long ago betrayed, could be recuperated out there, in the forbidden exotic place. Colonization was never simply the imposition of Western values, the assimilation of the Oriental and other Others to the European Sameness; it was always also the search for the lost spiritual innocence of OUR OWN civilization. This story begins at the very dawn of Western civilization, in Ancient Greece: for the Greeks, Egypt was just such a mythic place of the lost ancient wisdom.
One cannot escape Europeanness through a flight – either imaginary or physical – towards the East. Just the opposite, the more passionately you embrace Eastern practices, the more anchored you become in your colonizing European identity. This kind of a rebellion is not only devoid of any actual transgressive value, it actually reinforces the very practices from which it purports to liberate you. The same sad process of a formerly transgressive behavior becoming a pillar of a repressive establishment can be seen in the realm of student rebellion:
The “truth” of the student’s transgressive revolt against the Establishment is the emergence of a new establishment in which transgression is part of the game, solicited by the gadgets which organize our life as the permanent dealing with excesses.
The irony of the situation is that Žižek, whose every word is aimed at being a transgressive act, is especially loved by spoiled trust fund babies turned Ivy League graduate students who entertain themselves with Žižek’s writings as they are biding their time before taking control of the very establishment they like to imagine themselves as subverting.
In a similar way, the tolerant multi-culturalists who celebrate the Other and spend their lives in a navel-gazing privilege examination are exactly the same as fundamentalist Evangelicals in the US. We all know how much Žižek dislikes such fanatics of tolerance (and how grateful I am to the great philospher for shining a light of reason on them). I only wish that I ever find my way to formulating my objections to their peculiar brand of fanaticism as beautifully and precisely as Žižek does:
Moral majority fundamentalists and tolerant multi-culturalists are the two sides of the same coin, they both share the fascination with the Other. In moral majority, this fascination displays the envious hatred of the Other’s excessive jouissance, while the multiculturalist tolerance of the Other’s Otherness is also more twisted than it may appear – it is sustained by a secret desire for the Other to REMAIN “other,” not to become too much like us.
I have seen these attempts to enforce Otherness by our tolerant comrades more times than I care to remember on this very blog. They hate it when anybody tries to address Otherness with anything than quasi-respectful silence. These fanatics of meaningless tolerance are terrified that a discussion, an analysis, a rapprochement will reduce the Otherness of those they desperately need to be fully and completely Other. Without scratching the itchy scab of their imaginary privilege ona adaily basis, they will have no sense of their own identity, their own self-worth. This is why there is nothing more disrespectful of the Other than a refusal to discuss the limits of its Otherness. The position that “Every choice has an equal right to exist” is profoundly imbued with the capitalist philosophy, which is the reason Žižek hates it so much.
>My reader Canukistani has sent me a link to the following hilarious video that a political organization in Catalonia is using to encourage the young people to vote:
I wish I could have shown this video to my students before our recent elections. However, even if I’d known about the video then, I would have been too afraid of scandalizing our Midwestern students.
Thank you, Canukistani!