writer’s [one note] notebook review

A Writer's NotebookA Writer’s Notebook by W. Somerset Maugham
My rating: 1 of 5 stars

A Writer’s [one note] Notebook

The author of Of Human Bondage and reportedly one of the best paid novelists of the 1930’s reduced from fifteen volumes to one his lifetime of notebooks. He explains “I publish it because I am interested in the technique of literary production and in the process of creation [his own],” [p.xvi] and indeed the result is an extended look inside the sausage factory. Fiction writers, alas, feel compelled to invent all sorts of secondary and tertiary characters; rather than let the well run dry, countless real-time vignettes and portraits are assembled as potential raw material – along with many extended and tortured similes.

I read his bildungsroman titled Of Human Bondage ages ago and there is nothing in this compilation to recommend my returning to it. The general impression, especially from his early years, is of an insufferable egoist and materialist.

Two entries, when aged 22, exemplify. The first, “The more intelligent a man is the more capable is he of suffering,” [p.19] reveals the young egoist. The second, “Science is the consolor and the healer of troubles, for it teaches how little things matter and how unimportant is life with all its failures,” [p.24] reveals the materialist. What an odd view of science and suffering that is!

While studying to become a doctor, Maugham’s first novel sold out quickly, leading him to switch careers. By age 34 he writes, “Success. I don’t believe it has had any effect on me.” If only it had!

The freshest writing comes only when Maugham, finally freed of the rarified mileus of Paris and London, travels to the Pacific, to research a novel about the life of Paul Gauguin. Yet, throughout, he seemingly lacks compassion: everything is for the gristmill of his writings.

As a young man, like many, he struggles with the notion of God and the hypocrisy of many religious men. But he never seems to grow out of his youthful rebellion and remains a pinched modernist. At age 25, he writes:

“I’m glad I don’t believe in God. When I look at the misery of the world and its bitterness I think that no belief can be more ignoble.” [p.63]

A page later, he drops this clunker:

“After all, the only means of improving the race is by natural selection; and this can only be done by elimination of the unfit. All methods which tend to their preservation – education of the blind and of deaf-mutes, care of the organically disease, of the criminal and of the alcoholic – can only cause degeneration.” [p.64]

The writer, from an older if not wiser age, adds a few dozen comments, particularly when his prior musings are over-the-top. But here he remains mute, connoting approval.

But once you throw out the measuring stick, then all become relative and transient:

“The ethical standard is as ephemeral as all else in the world. Good is nothing more than the conduct which is fittest to the circumstances of the moment…” [p.65]

I am reminded that eugenics was all the rage among Western intellectuals, even if Maugham’s confession, in 1901, preceded by a good decade the fashion. Building on Darwin’s and Lylle’s pioneering work in dethroning God, by 1882 Nietzsche could declare in The Gay Science that “God is dead.” Long before Hitler, the concept of Social Darwinism, which adapted the survival of the fittest regime to humans, fueled all sorts of pathologies, many of them still alive and well today.

Recently I read an article titled “Harvard’s Eugenics Era” by Adam Cohen, which, in appearing in the Harvard Magazine, is the institution’s partial coming to terms with a sordid history a century after the fact. He writes:

“Harvard’s role in the movement was in many ways not surprising. Eugenics attracted considerable support from progressives, reformers, and educated elites as a way of using science to make a better world.” [March-April 2016, p.48]

He admits that:

“Harvard was more central to American eugenics than any other university. Harvard has, with some justification, been called the “brain trust” of twentieth-century eugenics…” [ibid.]

But, then again, what percentage of students today would be against “using science to make a better world”? Practically none.

Cohen traces the history of eugenics to England in 1883 to Darwin’s half cousin, Francis Galton. (Which helps explain Maugham’s otherwise precocious adherence to the cult movement in 1901.) That it built off of Darwin’s ground-breaking work is unmistakable.

A Harvard botanist, Professor Edward East, “gave important support to Galton’s fledgling would-be science,” writing in 1923 “‘Eugencs is sorely needed; social progress without it is unthinkable…’” [ibid., p.49] (But then again, what right-minded person can be against “social progress” or “social justice” nowadays?)

Coercive state power, in the hands of progressives of both parties, has a long history. Famed Harvardian Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. wrote the 1927 Supreme Court decision approving of Virginia’s sterilization laws, with what Cohen calls “one of the most brutal aphorisms in American law, saying … ‘Three generations of imbeciles are enough.’” [ibid., p.52] This when the young mother, named Carrie Buck, was clearly not. Sterilization of the “unfit” by various states continued until 1981.

Despite the longevity of its evil fruit, eugenics fell out of fashion in the U.S. due to Hitler’s embrace of it. So is the chapter in the U.S. mostly closed? I fear not. Margaret Sanger, the founder of Planned Parenthood, was a professed eugenicist, writing in a 1921 article, that “the most urgent problem today is how to limit and discourage the over-fertility of the mentally and physically defective.” She later wrote to black ministers in 1939, trying to tamp down the potential racist interpretation of her beliefs:

“We do not want word to go out that we want to exterminate the Negro population, and the minister is the man who can straighten out that idea if it ever occurs to any of their more rebellious members.” [see “What Margaret Sanger Really Said About Eugenics and Race,” Time Magazine, Oct, 14, 2016]

Abortion, in the name of women’s rights, has killed over 19 million black babies since its legalization in 1973. (That is nearly an entire generation of black Americans wiped out.) While making up only 13% of the adult female population, black women receive 36% of all U.S. abortions. [see “Black Abortions By The Numbers,” https://rtl.org/outreach/ sourced from CDC and other data.]

Given the supposed “unfitness” of all these young mothers, how could Holmes, Maugham, and Sanger disapprove? “Free choice” in the service of eugenics, how clever.

But I digress.

Maugham also betrays a certain British stiff-upper-lip, with reasoning such as this:

“The power of great joy is balanced by an equal power of great sorrow. Enviable is the man who feels little, so that he is unaffected either by the extremes of bliss or of grief.” [p.21]

Yet this goal of “feeling little” may not be ideal for a writer, especially for one whose heart hardened so young.

One of Maugham’s motivations for rejecting God comes later:

“How much greater would human happiness have been if gratification of the sexual instinct had never been looked upon as wicked. A true system of ethics must find out those qualities which are in all men and call them good.” [p.75]

Humanism could hardly be more clearly stated. And, once again, Maugham is prescient, as those who wish to believe in a Love-Only God most earnestly wish to be able to do whatever they want, throwing out one eternal law after another.

Regrettably, his last entries evidence very little growth, such as this adolescent twaddle (when aged 67):

“Plumbing. When you consider how indifferent Americans are to the quality and cooking of hte food they put into their insides, it cannot but strike you as peculiar that they should take such pride in the mechanical appliances they use for its excretion.” [p.345]

His eugenicist tendencies, apparently, were never given a decent burial. A late entry reveals some race-consciousness:

“When I was engaging two coloured maids to look after me the overseer of the plantation who produced them…” [p.342]

Produced them?

The same ripe age of 67, he upbraids God:

“If he’s capable of feeling he must be capable of remorse, and when he considers what a hash he’s made in the creation of human kind can he feel anything but that? The wonder is that he does not make use of his omnipotence to annihilate himself. Perhaps that’s just what he has done.” [p.346]

At some point in human history, when such views were still in the minority they might have appeared brave. But now that they are mainstream, particularly among intellectuals, they seem flatly, tragically, deaf and dumb.

By book’s end, I only had compassion for a writer still struggling with issues such as values and beauty, while fighting their creator. How sad: yet another literary giant turns out to be a moral midget.

In vain I waited for an older Maugham to quibble with the absurdities of youth (of which I also had many), but instead he was consumed by them.

[W. Somerset Maugham, A Writer’s Notebook, Vintage Books, New York, 1st International Edition, Dec. 2009]

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About ben

Ben Batchelder has traveled some of the world's most remote roads. Nothing in his background, from a degree in Visual & Environmental Studies at Harvard to an MBA from Wharton, adequately prepared him for the experiences. Yet he persists, for through such journeys life unfolds. Having published four books that map the inner and exterior geographies of meaningful travel, he is a mountain man in Minas Gerais, Brazil who comes down to the sea at Miami Beach, Florida. His second travel yarn, To Belém & Back, received a starred review from Publishers Weekly. For more, visit www.benbatchelder.com.

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