Moderating and Checking The Emotions: Of Human Bondage by W. Somerset Maugham

One of my closest friends is always telling me not to take off hand remarks or things that people say personally. It’s a good piece of advice but one that is much easier said than done. I think he is gently trying to teach me what Spinoza says in his Ethics about emotions being a type of human bondage:

Human infirmity in moderating and checking the emotions I name bondage: for, when a man is a prey to his emotions, he is not his own master, but lies at the mercy of fortune: so much so, that he is often compelled, while seeing that which is better for him, to follow that which is worse. Why this is so, and what is good or evil in the emotions, I propose to show in this part of my treatise. But, before I begin, it would be well to make a few prefatory observations on perfection and imperfection, good and evil.

W. Somerset Maugham uses this phrase from Spinoza, “Of Human Bondage” as the title of his novel about a young man who is born at the turn of the 20th century with a club foot and is orphaned at the age of nine. Philip Carey, when both his parents die within a year of each other, is sent to live with his aunt and uncle who live in the vicarage of a small fishing village. Although his aunt, who is childless herself, nurtures and cares for Philip, his uncle, the pastor, is a stern and rigid man who quickly sends the boy off to boarding school at the age of ten.

Philip’s club foot is a constant source of humiliation since he can’t participate in most of the other boys’ games. He spends a great deal of time by himself reading books. His ostracism, loneliness, and the indignity he suffers from his disability often drive him to fits of anger which he directs at the people who are closest to him—his aunt, his school friend, his love interest. But this is not a “feel good” story about the life of a person who is heroic, humble or brave because of his deformity. But instead, Maugham adroitly develops the character of a flawed man who is self-reflective enough to work through his negative emotions—his “bondage.” Much like the ancient Greek tragedies—Oedipus especially comes to mind—his anger leads him to pain and heartache and he must learn to tame these negative emotions.

Philip’s other emotional bondage is revealed when he is smitten with a waitress in a coffee shop he frequents in London. Mildred is uncouth and cold to him, but she uses his feelings to her advantage. He starts out by buying her gifts, nice dinners and tickets to music halls. But his obsession with her drives him to the extreme of supporting her and a child she has with another man. Maugham hints several times in the text that Philip is mostly drawn to Mildred by pure, animal attraction. The crueler she is to him and the worse she treats him, the more he wants to possess her and relieve his physical desires: “It seemed to him that he was swayed by every light emotion, as though he were a leaf in the wind, and when passion seized him he was powerless. He had no self-control.”

Philip’s character is further tested and developed as he tries to decide what he should do with his life. He hates boarding school and leaves before he graduates to spend a year in Germany. He learns languages and reads voraciously there but when he returns to England he is a miserable failure when he tries to be an accountant in an office in London. He then enrolls in art school in Paris where he thinks about a career as a painter. It’s in Paris where he encounters authors and artists who are miserable, drunks who have wasted away their lives in the unrealistic pursuit of a famous career. His time in Partis is the turning point in the book, when Philip becomes especially contemplative as he reflects on the meaning of life and what his purpose in it might be. Philip returns to London after two years and he decides to attend medical school and become a doctor like his father that he barely knew.

Philip doesn’t get his medical degree until he is nearly thirty and persists in this career despite suffering multiple setbacks. Because of the things he has learned through his experiences he becomes master of his emotions and can appreciate all that he has been through. He is no longer quick to anger and he becomes known among his patients for his kind and gentle bedside manner. His awful experiences with Mildred do not make him bitter, but instead when he finds a remarkable woman who loves and adores him he is able to return that love with equal affection.

He accepted the deformity which had made life so hard for him; he knew that it had warped his character, but now he saw also that by reason of it he had acquired that power of introspection which had given him so much delight. Without it he would never have had his keen appreciation of beauty, his passion for art and literature, and his interest in the varied spectacle of life. The ridicule and the contempt which had so often been heaped upon him had turned his mind inward and called forth those flowers which felt would never lose their fragrance. Then he saw that the normal was the rarest thing in the world. Everyone had some defect, of body or of mind.

Maugham’s novel is a remarkable piece of literature not only for its development of a complex character but his writing is that of excellent literature at its finest. It may sound a little silly, or cliche, to say this but the best books always make me look at the world a little differently; Of Human Bondage has certainly made me appreciate my friend’s advice against getting pulled down by negative emotions.


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On Reading Big Books Again: The Doll by Bolesław Prus

I’ve been reading enormous books again—the doorstopper variety that Henry James famously labelled as “loose, baggy monsters.” It’s not that I had developed an aversion to large books or to reading in general but I seem to have lost interest in longer tomes in the past 3 years. I remember reading Neil Peart’s book Ghost Rider many years ago in which he recounts the tragedies of suddenly losing his teenage daughter and wife in the span of a year. A talented drummer, songwriter and author, he isn’t sure if he will ever do any of the things he loved in his previous life again; he has to figure out how music and writing fit into his “new” life.

I always thought it was strange that someone who was a talented drummer could suddenly put aside the skill and joy that was so intricately a part of who he was. But, three years ago, having suffered my own, unexpected loss, I, unfortunately, understood all-too-well what Peart was going through. How could I read or write or do anything I formerly enjoyed with such a deep pain in my heart and soul? What did anything matter when my life had been completely shattered? Peart takes his “little baby soul” on a long journey of healing and comes to terms with his new reality, and, luckily for us, he comes back to drumming and music and writing in a reinvigorated way.

In January I had the sudden urge to read enormous books again—the kind that I can get lost in, that completely engross me. In my “previous” life I couldn’t get enough of authors like Proust and Tolstoy and Musil. Similar to what Peart experienced on his healing journey, I have discovered that there are interests like reading and writing that have come back around in my life in refreshing and stimulating new ways. But there are also some things that have gone by the wayside that I will never do again (more on that in a different post). When I asked on Twitter for recommendations of large, absorbing books, The Doll by Boleslaw Prus was a suggestion I immediately jumped at because of who recommended it and who had published it. A classic of 19th century Polish literature, The Doll has been reissued by NYRB classics with a translation by David Welsh that is revised by Dariusz Tolczyk and Anna Zaranko.

Prus depicts Polish life in Warsaw in the late 19th century, the scope of which is reminiscent of a Dickens novel that encompasses all classes of society. Our hero, Stanislaw Wokulski, is a merchant who, for the love of an upper-class woman, has taken risks to enhance his fortune and bestow his generosity on the poor souls he meets in the slums of Warsaw. He has a midlife crisis of sorts and wants to be a better man and leave his mark on the world; he convinces himself that the best way to do this is to win Izabela’s hand in marriage.

Wokulski is a generous, kind-hearted, hard-working, heroic man who is benevolent even to the Jews who are terribly persecuted in Warsaw like they are around Europe. Part of the narrative is told from the perspective of his store clerk and friend, an old man named Rzecki, who deeply admires and reveres his employer. It doesn’t even occur to Rzecki at first that his dear friend could have fallen in love with an insipid, highborn woman like Izabela. She won’t consider Wokulski as a potential husband simply because he is a merchant and beneath her, but she does continue to lead Wokulski on and use him to her financial benefit. Rzecki is hoping that Wokulski will fall in love with a woman named Helena, a humble and kind-hearted widow who is much more deserving of a man like his boss than the shallow and cruel Izabela. (Needless to say, I, too, was rooting for the widow.)

In one of his moments of lucidity and reason, Wokulski wonders if Izabela is capable of loving anyone:

“There are women with moral defects who are incapable of loving anyone or anything except their own fleeting caprices, just as there are such men; it is a defect like deafness, blindness or paralysis, only less obvious.”

Even weeks after I’ve read the book I keep thinking about these lines. I felt like I had a personal epiphany of sorts; it had never really dawned on me that there are those who are simply incapable of love of any kind —romantic, platonic, filial or otherwise. Whether it be from upbringing—as is likely the case with Izabela—or negative past experiences or genetics or a variety of other reasons, there are those who cannot look past themselves and extend love to another. I have a deeper understanding of what the Ancient Greeks were trying to tell us through the myth of Narcissus. Reading Prus also called to mind this stunning poem by Louise Gluck entitled “Seated Figure” which has a similar message about the inability to love:

It was as though you were a man in a wheelchair,

your legs cut off at the knee.

But I wanted you to walk. I wanted us to walk like lovers,

arm in arm in the summer evening,

and believed so powerfully in that projection

that I had to speak, I had to press you to stand.

Why did you let me speak?

I took your silence as I took the anguish in your face,

as part of the effort to move—

It seemed I stood forever,

holding out my hand.

And all that time, you could no more heal yourself 

than I could accept what I saw.

Wokulski’s downfall is due to the fact that he cannot or will not accept the reality of what he knows to be a selfish woman who is lacking the ability to love not just him but anyone.

I’m not sure what brought me back to reading this type of literature but I suspect it has something to do with what Paul Valery says on the subject in Cahiers 2: “Literature! You are nothing if you fail to give me a sense of discovery.” It’s that sense of discovery I was after and even in writing this I have a feeling of euphoria which feels so right in my “new” life.

Up next will be my thoughts on Thomas Mann’s Buddenbrooks and Dickens’s Bleak House. My voracious appetite for epic novels has, indeed, come back with a vengeance. What big books do you like to read?


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All Day I Loved You in a Fever: The Poetry of Robert Bly

I was first intrigued by Robert Bly’s poetry when I came across a description of his life and work in Michael Schmidt’s Lives of the Poets. While browsing a used bookshop in New England a few weekends ago, I bought a slim, hardcover volume of his poetry entitled, “Loving a Woman in Two Worlds.” My copy is not only in fine condition, but it is signed and inscribed by the author with a little drawing.

Love poems can so quickly become oversaturated with sappy cliches about lovesickness and heartache. But Bly uses images of mature, sensual, deep, long-lasting love as his inspiration for his collection. His poems are brief and are usually set in nature:

At Midocean

All day I loved you in a fever, holding on to the tail
of the horse.
I overflowed whenever I reached out to touch you.
My hand moved over your body, covered
with its dress,
burning, rough, an animals foot or hand moving
over leaves.
The rainstorm retires, clouds open, sunlight
sliding over ocean water a thousand miles from land.

The sense of contentment and sheer, unadulterated joy comes through in his poem “A Third Body.” A relationship is more than two people, it is how they are together—their history, their jokes, their private moments—that Bly personifies as a third body in this poem.

A Third Body

A man and a woman sit near each other, and they do
not long
at this moment to be older, or younger, nor born
in any other nation, or time, or place.
They are content to be where they are, talking or
Their breaths together feed someone whom we do
not know.
The man sees the way his fingers move;
he sees her hands close around a book she hands
to him.
They obey a third body that they share in common.
They have made a promise to love that body.
Age many come, parting may come, death will come.
A man and a woman sit near each other;
as they breathe they feed someone we do not know,
someone we know of, whom we have never seen.

The final one I will share from this collection describes love as a secret. Not a secret as in an illicit love affair, but instead a love that is quiet and calm and very private which makes it stronger and “unworried.”


I walk below the over-bending birches,
birches that arch together in the air.
It is an omen of an open door,
a fear no longer found in the wind.
Are there unions only the earth sees?
The birches live where no on else comes
deep in the unworried woods...
These sandgrains looked at by deer bellies.

In addition to being a talented poet, Bly was also an essayist and translator. I intend to explore more of his work in the coming year.

Signed and inscribed with a little drawing by Robert Bly


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Winter Vocative: The Poetry of William Bronk

My mother and business partner/friend Ken do not like winter at all—the dark, the cold, the short days. I found two poems by William Bronk about the positives of winter in the hopes that it might change their minds….a little.

The First is “Winter Light” which reminds us that we can’t appreciate the light without the dark, which is a good metaphor for life as well:

We see light but we live in the cold and the dark
-----winters anyway. We are aware
that that isn't all there is. We wouldn't have 
it otherwise. How should we not know
and be alive, not be deprived? I saw
this afternoon the whiteness under the dark
clouds and rejoiced that we know the light as much
and even more from gone than when it is there.

And from the same collection, Manifest and Furthermore a poem entitle "Winter Vocative":

Broken sky-mirror,
blue-shadowed snow,
June is far now,

hold while you can; show
bare of branch
stark of stalk:

ache us to know.

That last line...."ache us to know."  Bronk captures what I love about winter, the interesting sky, the beautiful snow.  

Do you send poems or books or quotes to people in your life too?


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Odi et Amo: Darconville’s Cat by Alexander Theroux

The first century B.C. Roman poet Catullus expresses his frustration and torment with his lover—an older married woman—in what is his shortest and, arguably, his most famous poem:

Odi et amo. quare id faciam, fortasse requiris?

nescio, sed fieri sentio et excrucior.

I hate you and I love you.

You may be wondering how can I feel this way.

I don’t know.

But that’s how I feel.

And I. am. tortured.

(Translation from the Latin is my own.)

That last word in the poem is especially striking. In Latin excrucior is specifically referring to the Roman form of torture by crucifixion. Who among us hasn’t felt that torment of mixed emotions when it comes to lost love? Alexander Theroux writes an erudite, funny, and tormented novel about these two opposite, conflicting emotions: “That which produces effects within one reality creates another reality itself. I am thinking, specifically, of love and hate.” Thus begins Theroux’s novel which takes the same ideas from Catullus’s “Odi et Amo” poem and uses 700 pages and 100 chapters to come to the same conclusion: love is torment.

The first half of Darconville’s Cat is Theroux’s exploration of “Amo.” Alaric Darconville, a peculiar, young, academic devoted to writing a book about angels, falls hopelessly in love with one of his students on the first day of his college Freshman English composition class. Darconville is ruthless in his judgement of the people he encounters in a small college town in the south. He is surrounded by silly, boring, poorly educated, shallow southerners and although Isabel Rawsthorne is one of them he convinces himself that she is somehow different. Thoreaux uses literary devices which we normally associate with love to lay out the progression of Darconville’s affair—one chapter is a love letter, another is a series of heroic couplets about love. “Knowledge is often used, mistakenly, in the sense of wisdom. Of such ideas let us soon hope to be rid, for no brainsick questions, mythical intricacies, or the froth of human wit can probe love—you cannot explain it. You point to it with a question exactly when it hasn’t an answer for you,” Darconville writes to a fellow academic about love. He continues, “Love, in any case, means union and what is not union is not love. You will either build a bridge or build a wall. In building a wall you remain the despicable crunchfist you always were, interested in neither projection nor equation but only in acquisition.”

On a quick sidenote, “crunchfist” might have stood out as a peculiar word that had to be looked up and is typical of Theroux’s wide range of vocabulary. Colluctation, concupiscence, and mendaciloquence are just a small sampling of the words he drops into his texts. And in places where he can’t quite find a word that fits he makes up his own. My knowledge of Latin and Ancient Greek helped me pick apart some of the archaic words he uses, but a good dictionary is a must if one is to attempt to read Theroux.

Like the sculptor Pygmalion, Darconville creates a vision of the perfect woman in his mind. Although she has thick thighs, isn’t very good at conversation and writes terrible English compositions for his class, he only sees her as perfection—his own Galatea without any flaws. He spends their time together taking her for romantic drives and picnics and he gives her A’s on her terrible essays. But even Darconville’s faithful cat, Spellvexit, knows that Darconville is blinded by his love for this girl: “Spellvexit, who despised philosophy, showed an utter disregard for Darconville’s neautontimoroumenotic pain and preferred to stay outside clacking his teeth at birds until all his blew over.” It’s not clear whether or not Darconville, who was previously enrolled in a seminary, is naive about Isabel or just stubbornly believes in her perfection. Theroux is a master of foreshadowing as he slowly leads us on the long decent towards hate: “Love is centrifugal, hate centripetal. Demons must hilarify as they watch while we are drawn to someone unable, or unwilling, to love us. It is easy to be cruel. One need only not love.”

The second half of Darconville’s Cat is an exploration of his attempts at hatred (his “odi”) and his torment when he sees Isabel for who she really is: young, immature, silly, incapable of loving him. Darconville accepts a position at Harvard University and moves north without Isabel who promises to marry him and join him in Cambridge once he is settled. A decrepit, ugly, misogynist eunuch who is some sort of pseudo-administrator named Dr. Crucifer tries to become Darconville’s mentor and foment his hatred not only of Isabel but also of love, women and relationships in general. Crucifer’s name itself is a nod to Catullus and the torture that Darconville suffers because of love. We get a good taste of Crucifer’s character in Chapter LXVIII entitled, “The Misogynist’s Library” which is an 8 page list of books in his library with titles like Adnil Notrub’s The Kept Woman Who Didn’t Keep Long and Waverly Root’s “Women are Intellectually Inferior.”

I say attempt at hate because, as I was happy to see, Darconville never truly embraces hate or revenge. As hard as Crucifer tries to convince Darconville to channel his hatred and ruin Isabel’s life, in the end he runs from all that ugliness. Yes, Darconville is tormented—so, so tormented. We feel that “excrucior” of Catullus as he flees to Venice and puts his energy into writing. It isn’t a happy ending for Darconville but in the end he avoids hate which is, in itself, a triumph, and heals his soul through his creative process, something to which I can especially relate.

It’s been speculated that Darconville’s Cat is autobiographical and nt the end of the novel the reader is also left with a good sense of Alexander Theroux’s own “Odi et Amo:”

Likes: big words, books, cats, fountain pens, cats, thick thighs, sarcasm, women.

Dislikes: the South, brevity, academia, weird recluses giving him bad advice, women.

Unfortunately Darconville’s Cat is out-of-print and copies are rare and expensive. I got lucky with an ex-library book at a book sale but it really ought to be reissued by a brave, small, literary press. Tough Poets Press has started to publish Theroux’s stories and Truisms. But Darconville’s Cat is even more worthy of a wider audience.


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