The Razor's Edge

The sharp edge of a razor is difficult to pass over;
thus the wise say the path to Salvation is hard.

The Razor's Edge was published in 1944 in a very different world from that of 1994. Yet some human yearnings and questions are eternal: We want to know that our existence has meaning and purpose, not just know it, but feel it in every part of our beings. William James addresses this universal yearning in his groundbreaking work, The Varieties of Religious Experience, published in 1902. Methodically and with an open mind, James addresses the full range of ways that Man approaches and relates to whatever he considers divine, which is whatever may supply the meaning that each human being needs. Somerset Maugham also addresses this yearning for profound meaning and purpose in The Razor's Edge and recounts the story of how one young man searches for and finds it.

The reader meets Laurence Darrell shortly after the end of World War I. Although different facets of his life and character are revealed slowly, one thing we learn immediately is that he is a source of frustration to his elders because he does not want to embark on a career. Other biographical facts include the fact that he's engaged to Isabel Bradley, his childhood sweetheart, he was a pilot in the war, and he is very reticent about his wartime experiences. In fact, many of the characters comment about how changed Larry seems to be since his return from the war. His most shattering wartime experience is finally related near the end of Chapter 1, p. 39, when he tells Isabel, "I don't think I shall ever find peace till I make up my mind about things,...'Wouldn't it be better to follow the beaten track and let what's coming to you come?' And then you think of a fellow who an hour before was full of life and fun, and he's lying dead; it's all so cruel and so meaningless. It's hard not to ask yourself what life is all about and whether there's any sense to it or whether it's all a tragic blunder of fate."

The pivotal event Larry is referring to is when a combat buddy of his loses his life, partly because he had come to Larry's rescue. Suddenly for Larry, death had a face; the reality of death had become personified in the loss of his friend. Larry Darrell's confession to Isabel illustrates how many people feel after witnessing the death of someone close to them. Death is such a mystery, so inexorable, and can seem so senseless as Larry points out, that experiencing it directly tends to deepen one's understanding of the real priorities in life and open one up to question the ultimate meaning of such a seemingly temporal existence as ours. This seems to be what happened to Larry. The death of his friend is the climactic event that prompts Larry to begin a quest for answers. He tells Isabel, "I want to make up my mind whether God is or God is not. I want to find out why evil exists. I want to know whether I have an immortal soul or whether when I die it is the end" (p. 56).

Because Larry is concerned with understanding evil and reconciling its existence with a meaningful universe, he would be termed a 'sick soul' by James as defined in The Varieties of Religious Experience. Indeed, Larry does explain near the end of the novel that because he couldn't understand why there was evil in the world, he first began to think about God (207). Larry does not avoid or deny death and suffering, he must confront it head-on and attempt to find meaning in spite of their existence. Many of James' statements in the chapter on "The Sick Soul" apply to Larry's state of mind. James writes that "The fact that we can die, that we can be ill at all, is what perplexes us; the fact that we now for a moment live and are well is irrelevant to that perplexity" (p. 140). Larry's brush with death leaves him "...a prey to the profoundest astonishment. The strangeness is wrong. The unreality cannot be. A mystery is concealed, and a metaphysical solution must exist. If the natural world is so double-faced and unhomelike, what world, what thing is real? An urgent wondering and questioning is set up, a poring theoretic activity, and in the desperate effort to get into right relations with the matter, the sufferer is often led to what becomes for him a satisfying religious solution" (Varieties, p.152). Larry does indeed embark on a single-minded search for answers: over a number of years, he reads and studies the great philosophers, he travels and meets different kinds of people, and for brief periods of time, he studies under spiritual teachers in differing religious traditions. Larry's spiritual quest becomes the primary narrative thread of the novel.

The sudden changes in Larry's goals and perspective engendered by his war experiences also conform to some of James' characteristics of conversion. James talks about how crises may precipitate a shifting of a person's center of energy in The Varieties of Religious Experience's chapters on conversion. He writes on page 198, "Emotional occasions, especially violent ones, are extremely potent in precipitating mental rearrangements. The sudden and explosive ways in which love, jealousy, guilt, fear, remorse, or anger can seize upon one are known to everybody...and emotions that come in this explosive way seldom leave things as they found them." Though grief is not mentioned, it certainly qualifies as one of these 'explosive' emotions. But Larry does not have a religious conversion; he doesn't find God but rather discovers the need to search for Him. However, as James writes, in Larry's case "...a complete division is established in the twinkling of an eye between the old life and the new" (p. 217).

Included in the shifting of Larry's center of personal energy is the development of a specific attitude that James mentions on page 209: "To begin with, there are two things in the mind of the candidate for conversion: first, the present incompleteness of wrongness, the 'sin' which he is eager to escape from; and, second, the positive ideal which he longs to compass." This is Larry's prevailing attitude as he pursues his spiritual search. He knows that an ordinary life, with its commonplace rewards, will not satisfy him; it seems empty and 'incomplete.' This is why he is not interested in pursuing a career simply for the sake of making money. But the ideal Larry seeks is not really a formed idea but rather a hope that he will find answers to his questions. Throughout much of the novel, Larry's search is contrasted with the other major characters' more usual pursuits of money, success, and prestige.

Aside from Larry Darrell, another major character in the novel is Elliot Templeton, who is the narrator's friend and Isabel's uncle. Though an American, Elliot has not only made Paris his home, but to be accepted by, and indeed a force within, European aristocratic society is his mission. In these terms, Elliot can be considered a success. Elliot's niece Isabel also plays a major role in the novel. Though she loves Larry, she does not understand him, and like Elliot, she considers social position and money extremely important. In fact, she eventually breaks off her engagement to Larry because she does not want to spend her life trying to answer questions people have been asking for thousands of years because, as she contends, "...if they could be answered, surely they'd have been answered by now" (p. 56).

Elliot and Isabel provide the major foils for Larry. Elliot symbolizes the materialism of the older generation and Isabel the materialism of the new. Both characters also express a common attitude toward someone engaged in a spiritual quest like Larry, they consider such preoccupations odd and a waste of time. Elliot says of Larry that he's "a very nice boy and it was damned sporting of him to run away and join the air corps, but I'm a pretty good judge of character...and my opinion is that Larry will never amount to very much. He has no money to speak of and no position" (p. 23). When Isabel visits his small room in Paris, she considers it sordid and vulgar, not understanding Larry's desire for austerity. When Larry shows her he is learning Greek and studying Spinoza, all Isabel can say is that she doesn't think his studies are very practical, in fact, his questioning is simply "adolescent indulgence." They talk of money and Isabel can't believe that Larry is satisfied with his small yearly allowance. Finally, right before she breaks off her engagement to him, she says of his desire for knowledge and the life of the spirit, "All this is just trifling. It's not going to lead you anywhere...Be a man, Larry, and do a man's work. You're just wasting the precious years that others are doing so much with" (p. 60). Many years later, when Isabel has married a friend of Larry's and they have produced two children, the narrator and Isabel are talking about Larry. Isabel asks what makes Larry so different and the narrator replies that perhaps it's something very commonplace, "...goodness, for instance." Isabel responds, "I wish you wouldn't say things like that. It gives me a nasty feeling in the pit of my stomach" (p. 132). When Larry decides to marry another childhood friend of them both, Isabel is jealous and secretly sabotages the union. Finally, although the narrator knows from Larry and other sources that Larry has had sexual relations with other women over the years, it's part of Isabel's own adolescent denial and possessiveness that she insists Larry can't possibly be anything other than a virgin.

Elliot and Isabel provide effective contrasts to Larry. Elliot's life revolves around prestige and the good opinion of others and he passes away near the end of the novel reasonably satisfied because he is issued an invitation to a prominent social gathering. One cannot say he has a more unhappy life than Larry, but the superficiality of Elliot's ambitions are highlighted. Elliot has nothing else to sustain him when his social popularity declines, as it does in his later years. Only through the goodness of his friend the narrator, does Elliot get the invitation at all; the prominent lady's secretary owed the narrator a favor. Isabel also dwells primarily on her social position and she is mortified when her husband loses all his wealth in the Wall Street crash of 1929. The irony that her whole family is since being sustained on the amount of money Larry had offered her ten years before when he wished to marry her does not escape her, yet she still tells the narrator that marrying Larry would have been madness; she should have just had an affair with him and then she could have forgotten him. To give Isabel her due, she does struggle at different points with Larry's deviation from the common path, and seems to flirt with the possibility of having similar feelings, yet in the end, she refuses to endorse Larry's choices and rejects any spiritual leanings of her own. One senses that Isabel decides to regard her attachment to Larry as mere physical desire because she doesn't want to deal with any other feelings of greater depth, whether these be true personal love for Larry or a much larger desire to connect with something greater. Understandably, she is afraid of the implications of giving these feelings validity so she denies or trivializes both these feelings in Larry and in herself. Or perhaps she lacks or refuses to cultivate a quality that James claims is essential to religious feeling. James claims, "There must be something solemn, serious, and tender about any attitude which we denominate religious" (p. 38). Yet the narrator of the novel tells Isabel, "You lack only one thing to make you completely enchanting...tenderness" (p. 250-51). This indeed may be the real key to her character but again, Isabel's life is portrayed not as an unhappy one but simply as one of limited dimension.

During this ten to fifteen year time period, Larry's life takes a less predictable path and his experiences and feelings dovetail with many of James' reflections on the spiritual life. Long before Larry has a mystical experience, he tells Isabel, "I wish I could make you see how exciting the life of the spirit is and how rich in experience. It's illimitable. It's such a happy life" (p. 60). When Isabel begs him to come back to America and take up a career, Larry replies, "I can't, darling. It would be death to me. It would be the betrayal of my soul" (p. 61). A polish man named Kosti, whom Larry befriends for a time, first exposes Larry to the subject of mysticism. Larry relates his excitement, "It was all new to me and I was confused and excited. I was like someone who's lain awake in a darkened room and suddenly a chink of light shoots through the curtains and he knows he only has to draw them and there the country will be spread before him in the glory of the dawn" (pp. 86-7). Though Larry would not have a mystical experience for some years more, it's interesting to see how much joy and peace he seemed to gain from the process of seeking itself. Indeed, it's very possible that Larry's searching allowed something to develop within him that would make his future mystical experience possible or, as James writes, "Some hidden process was started in you by the effort...and made the result come as if it came spontaneously" (p. 205), and James terms this a "subconsciously maturing process" (207). The very fact of Larry's search for knowledge indicates an implied belief that he would eventually find it. Such a belief is echoed by Tolstoy and quoted by James, "Since mankind has existed, wherever life has been, there also has been the faith that gave the possibility of living. Faith is the sense of life, that sense by virtue of which man does not destroy himself, but continues to live on. It is the force whereby we live. If Man did not believe that he must live for something, he would not live at all. The idea of an infinite God, of the divinity of the soul, of the union of men's actions with God-These are ideas elaborated in the infinite secret depths of human thought. They are ideas without which there would be no life, without which I myself would not exist" (p. 184).

Larry does at last have a mystical experience and relates it to the narrator near the end of the novel. He has journeyed to India and spent two years with a holy man known for his saintliness, and Larry studies and meditaties with him. He would also spend time alone at a friend's cabin in the nearby mountains. During one of these mountain retreats, Larry watches the sun rise and has an extraordinary experience. Here is an excerpt of his brief description: "How grand the sight was that was displayed before me as the day broke in its splendour...I was ravished with the beauty of the world. I'd never known such exaltation and such a transcendent joy. I had a strange sensation, a tingling that arose in my feet and traveled up to my head, and I felt as though I were suddenly released from my body and as pure spirit partook of a loveliness I had never conceived. I had a sense that a knowledge more than human possessed me, so that everything that had been confused was clear and everything that had perplexed me was explained. I was so happy that it was pain and I struggled to release myself from it, for I felt that if it lasted a moment longer I should die; and yet it was such rapture that I was ready to die rather than forego it. How can I tell you what I felt? No words can tell the ecstasy of my bliss. When I came to myself I was exhausted and trembling" (p. 226).

When the narrator asks Larry how he can be sure the experience was genuine and not a mere hypnotic condition, Larry replies, "Only my overwhelming sense of its reality. After all it was an experience of the same order as the mystics have had all over the world through all the centuries...It's impossible to deny the fact of its occurrence; the only difficulty is to explain it. If I was for a moment one with the Absolute or if it was an inrush from the subconscious of an affinity with the universal spirit which is latent in all of us, I wouldn't know" (p. 227). He continues, "...I can only tell you that the intense sense of peace, joy and assurance that possessed me in that moment of rapture abides with me still" (Ibid.).

Based on these statements, I think that William James would consider Larry's experience a genuine mystical experience. James lists four qualities that differentiate such an experience. The first, a sense of ineffability, is expressed in Larry's statement that "No words can tell the ecstasy of my bliss" (p. 226). The second, a noetic quality, is attested to by Larry's "...sense that a knowledge more than human possessed me" (Ibid.). It is obvious Larry's experience did not last more than an hour or two, satisfying James' third characteristic of transiency, and the verbs Larry uses in his description, 'ravished,' 'possessed,' and 'released,' indicate Larry's sense of passivity. James also includes under this fourth characteristic of passivity the idea that "Some memory of their content always remains, and a profound sense of their importance" (p. 381). As Larry says years after the experience, "...that moment of rapture abides with me still" (227). Many of Larry's feelings are also echoed by other mystics quoted by James. Saint Theresa also speaks of the highest states of ecstasy as those in which the 'intellect and senses both swoon away,' and James confirms that these states are often "spoken of as something too extreme to be borne" (p. 412). St. Ignatius also speaks of "his spirit...ravished in God" and that the revelations given to him were of a metaphysical nature (p. 410).

But James is also concerned with the fruits of mystical experience. Some of these are optimism, monism, a sense of reconciliation and unification, and a sense of being one with the Absolute (pp. 416, 419). The 'fruits' of optimism and unity are mentioned in Larry's following statements. "I felt in myself an energy that cried out to be expended. It was not for me to leave the world and retire to a cloister, but to live in the world and love the objects of the world, not indeed for themselves, but for the Infinite that is in those moments of ecstasy I had indeed been one with the Absolute...I felt that only life after life, could satisfy my eagerness, my vigor and my curiosity" (p. 229). And Larry does indeed subscribe to a monistic viewpoint as when he explains to the narrator what the Absolute means to him. "It's nowhere and everywhere. All things imply and depend upon it. It's not a person, it's not a thing, it's not a cause...It transcends permanence and change; whole and part, finite and infinite. It is eternal because its completeness and perfection are unrelated to time" (p. 221).

Though I am not arguing that Larry Darrell's character becomes a saint, he also displays many of the fruits of a saintly life mentioned by James after he has his experience. James says on page 272 that one of these is "A feeling of being in a wider life" and "the sensibility...of an Ideal Power." James says this power may be a personified God or simply abstract moral ideas. After his mystical experience, Larry does decide to go back to America and live his life according to the ideals of "calmness, forbearance, compassion, selflessness and continence" (p. 230). This last, continence, is also mentioned by James under the heading of asceticism (p. 273); "sacrifice and[one's] loyalty to the higher power." Finally, Larry expresses what James calls charity, "tenderness for fellow creatures" (p. 274). Larry tells the narrator, "It may be that if I lead the life I've planned for myself it may affect's just possible that a few people will see that my way of life offers happiness and peace" (p. 231).

Since the problem of evil was so central to Larry when he embarked on his spiritual quest, how did his mystical experience affect his perception of the reasons for the existence of evil? He first admits to the narrator that "it may be that there is no solution or it may be that I'm not clever enough to find it" (p. 229), but then goes on, "The best I can suggest is that when the Absolute manifested itself in the world evil was the natural correlation of good...Isn't it possible...that the values we cherish in the world can only exist in combination with evil?" (p. 230). When the narrator protests that the notion is not very satisfactory, Larry agrees but says, "...when you've come to the conclusion that something is inevitable all you can do is to make the best of it" (Ibid.). His view seems to be that evil arises out of the process of manifestation and is not necessarily part of the Absolute in its unmanifested state. This would seem to correspond to what James calls the monistic view (p. 132), in which evil serves a purpose and is an inevitable part of the greater whole. Yet Larry's view also seems to have a pluralistic element in that when the Absolute is unmanifest, evil does not exist. Larry's view is an interesting way to reconcile the two theories and may again attest to the genuineness of his mystical experience in that mystic states tend to involve a unifying perception of reality. Also, because he has discovered meaning in life that does not ignore evil, his religious experience bears the qualities of what James calls a "second birth;" the kind of religious experience that James says the "sick soul" must have. Though many of James' categories and speculations do not apply to Larry Darrell, those that form the heart of his study, the mystical experience as the foundation of personal religious experience, the basic reasons Man searches for such a experience, and the enriching 'fruits' religious experiences provide in our lives, can all be traced in Larry Darrell's life.

One of the questions we were asked in this class had to do with saintliness and why it is so rare. I pointed out that perhaps saintliness is not as rare as we think; perhaps there are many people quietly living saintly lives, but are unknown and unrecognized by the world. Maybe we would not call them saints, but simply consider them good people, although probably better than we consider ourselves. Somerset Maugham writes that Larry Darrell was such a person. "Larry was without ambition and had no desire for fame...and was too modest to set himself up as an example to others" (p. 258). Yet the author speculates that Larry's glowing example will surely influence a few uncertain souls to follow in his footsteps and lead a life of the spirit. Simply by living, Larry makes the world a better place. Somerset Maugham's gift of this novel to the world has made the world better as well, as has William James' exhaustive and profound study of perhaps the most significant experiences a human being can have.

© 1994 Shirley Galloway

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