Recently in The Moon and Sixpence Category

Not worth sixpence

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The Tate Modern's Gauguin show enthralled me.  I saw it three times, and if I were in London now I'd see it again. 

After my first time through the exhibit, I bought Somerset Maugham's, The Moon and Sixpence.  Like one of the characters in this novel, I was in "the cruel grip of appetite" (p. 108): I wanted to know everything possible about Gauguin, and The Moon and Sixpence was loosely based on his life.

I'd also wanted to read something by Somerset Maugham.  After reading Ruth Franklin's New Yorker review of Selina Hastings' biography, The Secret Lives of Somerset Maugham, I was curious about Maugham.  According to Hastings, Maugham was plagued by artistic doubts.  Of middling critical success (although he earned spectacular popular acclaim), Maugham judged himself of "small power of imagination" and made "earning a living . . . his first priority."

The Moon and Sixpence doesn't rescue Maugham from his own harsh assessment.  As a portrait of a sociopath, the novel conceivably possesses some descriptive accuracy; as an inquiry into the nature of artistic greatness, the novel is utterly a failure.

Charles Strickland, the novel's stand-in for Gauguin, is a monster:

He was a man without any conception of gratitude.  He had no compassion.  The emotions common to most of us simply did not exist in him, and it was as absurd to blame him for not feeling them as for blaming the tiger because he is fierce and cruel.
(p. 109.)  Even worse than inhuman, Charles Strickland is flat.  His dialogue is bad and, unforgivably, unrevealing.  Here is Strickland responding to the book's narrator, sent by Strickland's wife to retrieve him after he's quit his job as a stockbroker and abandoned his family:

"What makes you think you have any talent?"
. . . .
"I've got to paint."
"Aren't you taking an awful chance?"
. . . .
"I've got to paint," he repeated.
"Supposing you're never anything more than third-rate, do you think it wil have been worth while to give up everything?" . . .  
"You blasted fool," he said.
"I don't see why, unless it's folly to say the obvious."
"I tell you I've got to paint.  I can't help myself.  When 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."
(p. 44-45.)  The pedantic - to say nothing of redundant - quality of Strickland's self-explanation is sadly consistent with the narrator's dull assertions about "life in general": 

  • "I had not yet learnt how contradictory is human nature; I did not know how much pose there is in the sincere, how much baseness in the noble, or how much goodness in the reprobate" (p. 36);
  • "I did not realize how motley are the qualities that go to make up a human being.  Now I am well aware that pettiness and grandeur, malice and charity, hatred and love, can find a place side by side in the same human heart" (p. 57);
  • "It requires the feminine temperament to repeat the same thing three times with unabated zest" (p. 47).
Well call Maugham a bitch.

But the Maugham doesn't restrict the book's flaws to blithe sexism and insouciant lack of self-awareness.  In addition to denying both Charles Strickland and the book's narrator psychological and emotional depth, Maugham is cowardly in his handling of the facts of Gauguin's life.  Strickland has two children, not five, and they don't die (unlike Gaugin's, of whom only three lived to maturity); Strickland's Tahitian wife is seventeen, not fourteen; Strickland dies of leprosy, not syphilis. 

Taken alone, these details might be unimportant, but I can't help relating Strickland's avoidance of these dirty facts of sex and death to his overall lack of insight into life and the artistic process.  "It seemed to me that I could see a great many things that other people missed," Maugham reportedly said; in his insecurity-masquerading-as-arrogance, he must have hoped that everyone else, like Strickland (and Gauguin) at his death, is blind.

(Image of Paul Gauguin's "Vision After the Sermon" from Shafe)

The apple in visual art's Garden of Eden

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Viewing the permanent collection at the Peggy Guggenheim Collection today, I was struck by the explanatory note accompanying Paul Klee's painting, "Zaubergarten (Magic Garden)" (pictured left).  In this painting, the note claimed (I'm paraphrasing), Klee wanted to shed all his preconceived methodologies and techniques and paint like an unlearned child.

Klee's desire sounded familiar.  Having just seen the Gaugin show at the Tate Modern, I read two novels based on Gaugin's life: Somerset Maugham's The Moon and Sixpence, and Mario Vargas Llosa's This Way to Paradise.  Both novels emphasize Gaugin's desire to paint like a "primitive."

Although to our ears - disinfected, as they've been, by political correctness - painting "like a primitive" sounds dangerously like racist twaddle (premised, as the desire seems to be, on the romantic and inaccurate assumption that primitives are pure, uncivilized, uncorrupted, natural, sexual, etc.), I believe the impulse exhibited by Gaugin, Klee and other modernists is legitimate, non-racist and non-romantic, even if the semantics are now dated.  Here's why:

Humans have been making non-realistic visual art - figurative, but with elements of abstraction, two-dimensionality, fantasy, etc. - for vastly longer than they've been making realistic art.  Despite the horrified reactions of art connoisseurs to the onset of abstraction in the late 19th century (and the continuing bafflement of the public to 20th and 21st century art), the realism of the Renaissance, Enlightenment and Romantic ages (and not the subsequent reintroduction of elements of abstraction) was the aberration.

The post-Renaissance artist desiring to make abstract art, however, faced a problem that didn't arise for his pre-Renaissance counterpart: literacy.  As Walter J. Ong describes in Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word, the consciousness of people in primary oral societies is considerably different than that of people in literate societies (see especially pp. 31-77). 

In particular, "the shift from oral to written speech is essentially a shift from sound to visual space."  (p. 117).  While people in primary oral societies experience language as sound, alphabets and print have the tendency "to reduce all sensation and indeed all human experience to visual analogues."  (p. 76.)  Sound, of course, is invisible and dissipates rapidly; words, in Ong's analysis, are "events."  Writing, on the other hand, is visible and "immobile"; words become "things . . . for assimilation by vision."  (p. 91.)

What writing, print and literacy mean for the post-Renaissance artist is that the visual arena is now invaded by the word.  The instinct to seek a primitive state in order to paint is the impulse to return to primary orality, to a consciousness in which language is relegated to sound, and in which the visual sphere is uncoupled from linguistic communication. 

The impulse goads the artist into a near impossible task.  As is explained in Maryanne Wolf's, Proust and the Squid (discussed in this New Yorker article) and Stanislas Dehaene's, Reading in the Brain: The Science and Evolution of a Human Invention (reviewed in the New York Times piece) both primary orality and literacy are encoded at the neurological level in the brain.  I'm no neuroscientist, but I'm guessing that to move from one system to another requires rearranging neural circuitry.  (Ong laments that "we can never forget enough of our familiar present [literacy] to reconstitute in our minds any past [of primary orality] in its full integrity" (p. 15).)

On a more personal level, in writing my last novel, The Celebration Husband, I attempted to portray characters from primary oral societies.  To do so, I needed to achieve an understanding of their thinking patterns, logic, motivations, emotional processes, etc.  Despite extensive research and imaginative effort, I am not confident that I got it right.  Although I believe that the attempt to gain understanding of primary oral consciousness is critical (even in failure), I doubt that a medium of literacy can ever bring to life fully a person from a primary oral society (with the possible exception of poetry).  Visual artists might have a better chance.  In any event, I feel in a small way that through my work on The Celebration Husband I can relate to the quests of Klee, Gaugin and other modernists to reconstruct a primary oral consciousness (even if they didn't understand their mission in those terms).

Significantly, conceptual artists represent an abandonment of this effort of the modernists.  Conceptual artists accept a visual field occupied by the word, and they put the word (and its corollary, ideas) to work in the service of art. 

The effect is necessarily less visually arresting.  After all, we literates already experience a visual sphere cluttered with words; conceptual art may invite us to think differently about those words, but it does not present us with a visual arena in which words are absent, as they are in the art work of a person from a primary oral society (or a child).

Ong describes writing as "a particularly pre-emptive and imperialist activity that tends to assimilate other things to itself."  (p. 12.)  In Klee, Gaugin and other modernists, we may have witnessed the last resistance of visual artists to this imperialism.  And though subsequent generations may not have picked up their fight, these rebel artists produced a legacy on par with that of the Renaissance.  We have yet to see post-modernist artists do the same.

(Image of Paul Klee's Zaubergarten from the Guggenheim website)

About this Archive

This page is an archive of recent entries in the The Moon and Sixpence category.

The Master is the previous category.

The Portrait of a Lady is the next category.



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