“A Defeat Better Than Many Victories”
Because that is what, at the end, life is about. And what better time to learn this simple truth, than these the worst years of all. For it is in the victories which you so desperately seek that you will find only your devastation, and that, through the terrible destruction of others. Yes, it is only through your defeat that you will find your victory; the defeat of petty prejudices, of carefully drawn utopias, of epic feats and fits of imagination that will lead you to the poorhouse. All that which makes life miserable – juxtaposed this most dreadful of years against the simplicity of caring for your little boy, creating a cushion for him lest he realize the raging world that burns around and the delicately thin bubble of childhood is popped, rending asunder his right to live as he is now, a life which he has been given and which we have no right to take from him. Yes, the simple defeats – the defeat of happiness’s pursuit against contentment and peace; the defeat of ambition against the understanding of our place in the world, though we wish it were not so; the defeat of lust gazing solemnly at the silent duty of matrimony.
This is all what “Of Human Bondage” by W. Somerset Maugham is about. It is about a bondage that liberates, but only when we accept it; a bondage that will set us free as we come to terms with the utopian idealism of youth, and quietly set it aside for the glorious reality of defeat. For in the defeat of these pretensions, only that is where we find lasting victory. The novel is of course Maugham’s best work, his lasting opus. The story of Philip Carey, born to tragedy – a deformity, orphaned from birth, alone and unloved. A coming of age story, of how Carey advanced and grew, of his many mistakes – how he managed insecurities, his fits and bursts at ambition that left him empty, his disastrous experiments with passionate love that left him destitute. About poverty, the special kind of middle-class poverty of Edwardian England where success and failure balanced upon a knife’s edge of chance and opportunity.
I don’t know why Maugham did not win a Nobel prize for this, the greatest feat of literature of the Edwardian era. This was a novel which I read the first time twenty years ago and which sharply honed the empathy which I still enjoy to this day, that I have returned to in days of pandemic not to find it trite or simplistic or vulgar as we so often do of the literature of our youth, but in fact with a deeper sense of meaning; a more significant depth of life and more pressing lessons for our times than I ever would have thought possible. If I could, I would force each American to read this novel – it would change them forever, as it did me. And that would not be a bad thing; for America is full of Philip Careys, but without the wisdom imbued by a writer so great as W. Somerset Maugham.