human-bondage-w-somerset-maugham-paperback-cover-artOf Human Bondage, with its nearly 700 pages, is as close as a book can get to describing life in all of its richness and ambiguity. It starts off quite trivially – a young crippled boy is orphaned and sent to live with his childless aunt and uncle. So very David Copperfield. At a very young age Philip is left at the care of his distanced relatives and is forced to accept the fact that more or less he is alone in the world. Add to that the club foot he has been born with, the conservative, strict and insensitive uncle and the aunt, too weak to stand up to her husband and defend the boy, and you get that familiar tale of the deprived child, who grows up to prove everyone wrong.

Yes, but not really. What W. Somerset Maugham rather creates is a believable and realistic description of a life. Not just Philipp’s life, but any life. With its ups and downs, successes and mistakes, confidence and doubts, love and hatred. You get to like Philipp for his determination to find his vocation in spite of everyone else’s opinion. So you follow him in high-school, where he is sent by his vicar uncle to study religion and eventually join the clergy. You are there with him when he starts questioning the existence of a God and when he finally understands and accepts that he is not a believer and will never be. You are also there when he has to endure the mocking of his deformity from the other children and he finds a way within himself to deal with. You really get to admire Philipp, however, when he gives up the secure job of an accountant inflicted upon him by his uncle, and he decides to travel to Paris and become an artist. It takes quite a courage and self-confidence to risk everything for that gut feeling of yours that you have a talent. And it takes even more strength to admit that you were wrong (and you in fact have no sort of talent) and to go back and pursue yet another career. With Philipp’s wanderings from job to job, from city to city, and from country to country, Maugham touches on that special characteristics of young people (then as well as now). They want to experience it all. They want to try it, fail it, and then go on. But they will never be satisfied with their first choice or with the choice inflicted on them by someone else. Until they try it a first, a second, even a third time and until they discover that whatever they have been told is a lie:

He did not know how wide a country, arid and precipitous, must be crossed before the traveller through life comes to an acceptance of reality. It is an illusion that youth is happy, an illusion of those who have lost it; but the young know they are wretched, for they are full of the truthless ideals which have been instilled into them, and each time they come in contact with the real they are bruised and wounded. It looks as if they were victims of a conspiracy; for the books they read, ideal by the necessity of selection, and the conversation of their elders, who look back upon the past through a rosy haze of fretfulness, prepare them for an unreal life. They must discover for themselves that all they have read and all they have been told are lies, lies, lies; and each discovery is another nail driven into the body on the cross of life.

You also get to pity Philipp for his rather terrible choices when it comes to love. His first experience with an older woman is more of a young man’s search of a sexual identity rather than love. But his first real connection with that painful and self-absorbing love turns out to be a complete disaster in every sense of the word. We have all been there – a consuming love for someone who doesn’t love us back but we desperately ignore the signs and stubbornly refuse to believe it. Philipp nearly throws away his life for Mildred and while at times we really despise his weakness and utter self-humiliation, we kind of understand him. Even when for the n-th time he throws away someone who really cares for him to help Mildred yet another time. Philipp doesn’t get love at the first time (who actually does?). It takes him quite a while to understand what really matters. And that is not that passion that consumes your whole being, that makes you leap in joy one second and then cry to sleep the other, but rather that calmness and tranquility that only comes when you are together with someone who really wants to be with you. In that sense comes Philipp’s real victory – he surrenders to happiness:

It might be that to surrender to happiness was to accept defeat, but it was a defeat better than many victories.

What really makes Of Human Bondage a complete encyclopaedia of life is that it touches on nearly every aspect of it…without the redundant drama or the shallow advice as how to stay positive and not make mistakes. No, it tells you, make the mistakes, once, twice, many times if necessary, but get there somehow. Even if you have to crawl.

It’s about wishes…:

He asked himself dully whether whenever you got your way you wished afterwards that you hadn’t.

About how to come to terms with people’s selfishness:

You will find as you grow older that the first thing needful to make the world a tolerable place to live in is to recognise the inevitable selfishness of humanity. You demand unselfishness from others, which is a preposterous claim that they should sacrifice their desire to yours. Why should they? When you are reconciled to the fact that each is for himself in the world you will ask less from your fellows. They will not disappoint you, and you will look upon them more charitably. Men seek but one thing in life – their pleasure.

About money:

There is nothing so degrading as the constant anxiety about one’s means of livelihood. I have nothing but contempt for the people who despise money. They are hypocrites or fools. Money is like a sixth sense without which you cannot make a complete use of the other five. Without an adequate income half the possibilities of life are shut off.

About love:

But her tears were partly tears of happiness, for she felt that the strangeness between them was gone. She loved him now with a new love because he had made her suffer.

About accepting failure:

It’s no good crying over spilt milk, because all the forces of the universe were bent on spilling it.

And about accepting whatever card life has dealt you:

He accepted the deformity which had made life so hard for him; he knew that it had warped his character, but now he saw also that by reason of it he had acquired that power of introspection which had given him so much delight. Without it he would never have had his keep appreciation of beauty, his passion for art and literature, and his interest in the varied spectacle of life. The ridicule and contempt which had so often been heaped upon him had turned his mind inward and called forth those flowers which he felt would never lose their fragrance. Then he saw that the normal was the rarest thing in the world. Everyone had some defect, of body or of mind: he thought of all the people he had known (the whole world was like a sick-house, and there was no rhyme or reason in it), he saw a long procession, deformed in body and warped in mind, some with illness of the flesh, weak hearts or weak lungs, and some with illness of the spirit, languor of will, or a craving for liquor. At this moment he could feel a holy compassion for them all. They were helpless instruments of blind chance. He could pardon Griffiths for his treachery and Mildred for the pain she had caused him. They could not help themselves. The only reasonable thing was to accept the good of men and be patient with their faults. The words of the dying God crossed his memory: Forgive them, for they know not what they do.

About getting that strength to do what you really want to do and not what society inflicts upon you:

It seemed to him that all his life he had followed the ideals that other people, by their words or their writings, had instilled into him, and never the desires of his own heart. Always his course had been swayed by what he thought he should do and never by what he wanted with his whole soul to do. He put all that aside now with a gesture of impatience. He had lived always in the future, and the present always, always had slipped through his fingers.

Throughout his life Philipp is desperately searching for the answer of a question no one has been able to answer so far – the meaning of life. A friend of his gives him a Persian rug, telling him that when the time comes, the Persian rug will reveal to him the meaning of life. And Philipp comes to a sort of Nietzschean perspective. Life is meaningless and pointless…and it always, always comes with a death sentence. So what one might do is to take an example from the weaver. As the weaver elaborates the pattern of his rug for no end, so might a man live his life. With the conviction that man has no power of selection over the course of his life and there is no meaning whatsoever to his actions, one can derive a simple satisfaction from creating the most beautiful pattern ever. Life is pointless and your decisions hardly matter, but you can spend your time creating it as beautifully as possible. You have the freedom to add patterns, colours, figures and expression, to delete and alter, to cast aside all illusions and stop measuring the quality of your life against your perceived happiness. When you understand that with your death you and everything you created with yourself will cease to exist, you have the determination and strength to turn your life into a work of art.

More from W. Somerset Maugham: 

The Moon and Sixpence

Other favourite quotes: 

Insensibly he formed the most delightful habit in the world, the habit of reading: he did not know that thus he was providing himself with a refuge from all the distress of life; he did not know either that he was creating for himself an unreal world which would make the real world of every day a source of bitter disappointment.

***

You know, there are two good things in life, freedom of thought and freedom of action. In France you get freedom of action: you can do what you like and nobody bothers, but you must think like everybody else. In Germany you must do what everybody else does, but you may think as you choose. They’re both very good things. I personally prefer freedom of thought. But in England you get neither: you’re ground down by convention. You can’t think as you like and you can’t act as you like. That’s because it’s a democratic nation. I expect America’s worse.

***

He was so young, he did not realise how much less is the sense of obligation in those who receive favours than in those who grant them.

***

It’s cruel to discover one’s mediocrity only when it is too late. It does not improve the temper.

***

He found that it was easy to make a heroic gesture, but hard to abide by its results.