The Razor’s Edge by Somerset Maugham is the story of Laurence “Larry” Darrell, a young man who returned from war existentially troubled by the death of a close friend. Larry leaves his fiancée, Claire, for a year in Paris where he believes he can think through his troubled thoughts to their end. On his small veteran’s pension he rents a quiet room and studies, learning Greek to read classics in their original tongue, living a life of the spirit. Originally published in 1944, I had a 1946 hard cover (with double-spaced sentences) on my shelf for years and just recently read it. I reveled in every yellowed page of this monastic fantasy.
When Claire comes to Paris to fetch Larry after his year away, he declares his intention to continue. “‘But Larry’, she smiled. ‘People have been asking those questions for thousands of years. If they could be answered, surely they’d have been answered by now'”. Larry thinks she has said something shrewd. “But on the other hand you might say that if men has been asking them for thousands of years it proves that they can’t help asking them and have to go on asking them.” Larry goes on travelling, ultimately finding his way to a monastery in India.
The defining moment for me in The Razor’s Edge is not the moment of Larry’s enlightenment, not the shuddering of his head as he awakens, and not the mountain vista as he fathoms the interconnectedness of all things. It was his action just after his enlightenment that stuck with me, the moment when Larry burns his books. The burning scene is not in the text of Maughm’s book, but it was added in the 1984 movie adaptation by John Byrum, starring Bill Murray in a rare serious role. I had seen the movie some years ago. It was the burning scene that brought me to the book this many years later.
I think often about books and their role in enlightenment. I think traditional literacy is essential in learning and “scientific” enlightenment. I also feel that “transcendental” enlightenment is post-literate. I wanted to read more on this matter, but it was not in the book. Byrum might have added the burning scene for its visual effect on the screen, but I think there is more to it. The road to enlightenment has traditionally been a literary one. In The Pilgrim’s Progress, Christian begins his journey after being troubled by “the book in his hand”. Chris McCandless’ pilgrimage to Alaska had its start and finish in literature. The print version of The Razor’s Edge is narrated by the author, Maugham, serving as a messenger between the different worlds of Larry and Claire, and providing a more mature frame of reference. In the 1984 movie, Maugham’s character is absent. The powerful functions of Maugham, including the final dreadful confrontation with Claire, are assumed by Larry himself. This shift in focus away from the literary figure underscores my view that transcendental enlightenment is post-literate.
(There is also a 1946 movie adaptation by Edmund Goulding that I could barely finish watching. Both movies did a disservice to the feminine sexuality of Claire, and to the implied homosexuality of the character Elliott. The 1946 movie did a worse job of it. It also cleansed Sophie, and in so doing killed her character more tragically than the story.)