This is not the first time I’ve read “The Moon and Sixpence” by W. Somerset Maugham. Maugham is England’s best Edwardian novelist, living in that turn of the century period when imperial decline was just visible on the edges, but the anarchy that was coming had not yet made it to the center. That would come in war.
The Moon and Sixpence is a fictionalized account very loosely based on the life of painter Paul Gauguin. Charles Strickland was the fictionalized painter’s name – an Englishman who abandoned his family at middle age to try to paint; who received no accolades in life and died diseased and alone in a far away land; and who was later found to have been a genius.
Strickland epitomizes that search for meaning, detestable but courageous, that we rarely see in life. Life, adult life, is about compromise and balance and responsibility. Strickland recognizes none of these obligations, jettisoning everything in his life that was not directly related to appeasing that demon within his soul that yearned for expression. There was a vision in Strickland’s mind, some perfect image, some fully complete truth that tormented him. His only response was to give up his life in the single-minded pursuit of perfection, as he saw it.
This is not to say Strickland is a hero. Or even an anti-hero. Charles Strickland is a rogue and a ruffian and a cad. Not a character to be emulated in any way; nor is his despicable life enviable in any way. No images of fame, of ballrooms and crowds of adoring fans. Those things are for the purveyors of tepid creation, who seek to seem rather than to be.
Strickland sought to be.
The end was an explosion, and finished in the only way it could (spoiler alert). Diseased and old and poor and blind, bereft of any canvases left in his refuge he paints – blind and in considerable pain and discomfort – filling the walls of his hovel with a primitivist Sistine Chapel, a paean to man and nature and beauty. Then he died and had his hut burned to the ground. I don’t know if this is true of Gauguin – the artists did die infirm (Strickland had leprosy, Gauguin probably had syphilis) and did spend time in the South Pacific. It is, nevertheless, a remarkable salute to creation. To not give a two-penny damn about clients, to be satisfied only with releasing that demon inside that is desperate to get out, that is what all true artists seek to achieve.
Most give up along the way, the worst of them settling for fame and money and half-creations, horrific little abortions of lazy minds that scream from out of the book aisles, crowding out true magnificence and appeasing those who, too, have developed half-way and are always only too happy for a little fake art to wile away their meaningless days on earth, after they have given up.
Somerset Maugham was not one of these, nor was his creation – Charles Strickland.