Monday, April 12, 2010

The Moon and Sixpence

The Moon and Sixpence
by W. Somerset Maugham

Moon and Sixpence is a story of one man’s relentless pursuit of ideal beauty and how it impacted those around him. Based on the life of the French painter Paul Gauguin, Maugham resurrects Gauguin as the English stockbroker Charles Strickland, and in episodic style takes us from London to Paris and eventually Tahiti, through the eyes of a first person narrator. Through the narrator, an aspiring writer, (who we are only obliquely introduced to), we witness a mundane middle class stockbroker in fin de sicle London abruptly quit his job and leave his family for no apparent reason. Aquainted to the Stricklands as an attendee of soirees hosted by Stricklands’ wife, the narrator is tasked by Mrs. Strickland to persuade her husband to abandon his capricious decision and return to the family. Following Strickland to Paris and then later, after the death of Strickland, as a visitor to Tahiti, the narrator attempts to reconstruct his life through the recollections of others
The dominant theme throughout the story is Strickland's all-out pursuit of beauty, and for him that is the only moral rule.("He did not seem quite sane. It seemed to me that he would not show his pictures because he was really not interested in them. I had the idea that he seldom brought anything to completion, but the passion that fired him, he lost all care for it.")
It filled him with an emotion which he could not understand or analyze. he felt the awe and the delight which a man might feel who watched the beginning of a world. It was tremendous, sensual, passionate; and yet there was something horrible there too, something which made him afraid. It was the work of a man who had delved into the hidden depths of nature and had discovered secrets which were beautiful and fearful too. It was the work of a man who knew things which it is unholy for men to know. There was something primeval there and terrible. It was not human. It brought to his mind vague recollections of black magic. It was beautiful and obscene.
Sometimes people carry to such perfection the mask they have assumed that in due course they actually become the person they seem.
Charles Strickland had a profound and obsessive single mindedness toward his work which was reflected in his seemingly bizarre behavior around those in his life. Living the life of a stockbroker in London with all the trappings of a “normal” life, he suddenly quit his job and left his family to assume the life of a painter in Paris. The narrator follows him to his Parisian garrett , on a mission from Strickland's wife to persuade him to return to London and his family only to discover what true dedication was to this man.What is at issue here and which remains for the most part a mystery for the reader is the motivation which drives Strickland with reckless abandon to pursue his art. The passion is so intense that Strickland would abandon his entire belief system in one stroke to realize the dream of painting To generate this kind of intensity means that one must have suffered great pain and or loss to conjure up so drastic a change.Without considering the ramifications of his decision or whom it might impact, or how others may regard him, Strickland cuts himself free from his moorings to drift almost without any forseeable means of realizing his goal other than to embark on the journey.

To examine Strickland's artistic sensibility , it’s apparent that this man’s passion for the realization of his vision, allows him to jettison the life he has created for him and his family up to this point in his life. Disregarding what his family or others might say about his decision was a hurdle he jumps simply by almost brute indifference. It’s as though he realizes this is the only chance he has to save himself and he must do whatever it takes,even if it means becoming an outcast. His absolute indifference to the betrayal of the devoted Dirck Strove and the dastardly provocation of the suicide of Stroeve’s wife creates in the readers mind the complete self- centeredness of Strickland's impassioned response to life. It’s as though once free from the other self which he had been, he has embraced the recklessness and animalistic primitive which had been lurking inside of him all this time. Clearly a parallel with Gauguin “au Savage” who had rejected his own false self to indulge the passion of his soul, it mattered little what anyone said or thought about his actions. In some regard , Strickland actually relished the shocked reponses of those he hurt . It was as though this was an affirmation of the primitive self which he longed to become.Although the narrative is told through the eyes of the narrator?- once we are located on the island of Tahiti, and Strickland “goes native” he is free to assume the persona which has driven him along up this point. Free to be himself , aas the narrative goes, the intensity seems to diminish, only to be charged up once again when he contracts Leprosy.It is as though as the Leprosy transforms trhe actual body of Strickland, morphing him into the dark beast of pure passion, a Dorian Grey like transference evolves. The Savage is transmutated into pure paint and color onto the walls of the little hut in the jungle-“ It was the work of a man who knew things which it is unholy for men to know.”
Strickland was driven by some kind of creative desire or even pathological obsession which could only be satisfied through the exercise of participating in the attainment of that freedom of lifestyle which could only be afforded to him through painting. The act of painting was perhaps more important than the actual painting themselves-
("He did not seem quite sane. It seemed to me that he would not show his pictures because he was really not interested in them. I had the idea that he seldom brought anything to completion, but the passion that fired him, he lost all care for it.")

Whereapon he as able to rid himself of all the trappings of his previous lifestyle he also jettisoned the social constraints which in his mind prevented himself from the realization of his goal. In a kind of transmutation he sacrificed himself , including his own body, to this inner desire. In this regard the creative impulse was driven by a deep- seated desire for completeness, which paradoxically, was never intended to be acknowledged by any other than him.

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