Friday, June 05, 2009
The Moon And Sixpence :: On Charles Strickland
A few days ago I finished reading “The Moon and Sixpence” by William Somerset Maugham, for what I believe to be the sixth time. I’ve read this book in different seasons of my life, and it feels like every time I read it, I get something new out of it to busy my mind with. The book is semi-fictional novel about the life of a genius painter called Charles Strickland, who doesn’t mind making sacrifices of any magnitude at his own or other people’s cost, in the pursuit of his special vision of beauty and art. Charles Strickland’s character is fictional, but it is based on the real world painter Paul Gaugin, who happens to be one of my favorites.
I’ve always had this habit that when I’m reading a book, I create something of a movie scene in my head and bring the characters of the book I’m reading to life. I see them in their movements and their conversations, and sometimes, if a book fascinates me enough, I may end up imagining myself facing these characters, wondering what I would say or do if I where placed in the circumstances of the story. I guess that gives me a better understanding of these characters, and what they face in the course of the book. I think that perhaps while reading The Moon and Sixpence this time around, I felt more sympathy towards the narrator and the grave challenge he is facing in his rather peculiar relationship with Strickland, and the difficulty and confusion he has to deal with, when trying to describe how he perceives Strickland, his actions and his work of art, specially since he can’t even quite decide what it is that he feels towards Strickland. Well, perhaps my sympathy is due to the fact that I’ve found myself in his shoes in occasions.
The first time I read this book it was in my very early teenages. I remember being deeply taken by it, as Maugham’s way of describing those complex details of the mind of a human being, is simply fascinating. I also remember another element quite well: the acute horror I felt when I brought to life Strickland in my mind and imagined myself facing him. And from what I’ve gathered from discussing this book with it’s other fans, I’m not the only one feeling this way.
Well, Strickland is not exactly a sociopath. He’s not a serial killer, and as a matter of fact if one were to face Strickland in the real world, there would really be no immediate danger to worry about. Then what is it about him that induces such horror? Well, I suppose it’s mostly about what he does not, rather than what he does. The void, the gap, the emptiness. The narrator goes all the way to Paris with the intention to appeal to Strickland’s sense of human compassion, morality or responsibility, only to find out that he had none. In his consuming and obsessive quest to bring to canvas his unique vision of beauty and art. he had left his humanity behind.
So there’s the narrator, horrified, shocked and repelled by Strickland’s lack of human values on one hand, and absorbed and mystified by his courage and genius on the other. He can’t stand the way Strickland doesn’t mind destroying the lives of people who for some reason or the other care about him, with his complete disregard. And he can’t hate him enough to dismiss his invitation for a drink. He admires and loathes Strickland at the same time. He may have a lot of reasons to detest the very sight of Strickland, but when Strickland is deadly sick, he helps Stroeve in taking care of him, knowing full well that Strickland would never do the same for him. In fact he knows quite well that he could have a drink with Strickland every day of the year, and yet Strickland wouldn’t give a two penny if he receives news of his death.
And then there’s Dirk Stroeve, who’s not exactly an observer. He’s the true friend, one cursed by his own good will and positive nature. He receives Strickland’s colourful insults with a kind of patience that only he would be capable of. He takes Stroeve to his own home and looks after him when he’s sick, only so that Strickland would call him a sentimental fool, and then annihilate everything that mattered to him and leave him with absolutely nothing. Strickland despises Stroeve, only because Stroeve tries to help him despite of his loathsome behavior. Strickland sees any gesture of kindness from anyone as a some form of a “trick”, as he puts it, to put a leash on him, or to control or manipulate him in some way. And that, is the horror. It’s the narrator's pointless struggles to bring the smallest sign of sympathy out of Strickland, and finding out that there is none. It’s trying to explain the effect of a colour complex to someone who is born colourblind. It’s the bringing down of human compassion to the level of a control mechanism, or sentimental foolishness.
I have to mention that as far as I know, the events of Paul Gaugin’s life are similar to Strickland’s, but not his behavioral characteristics. I guess that’s a relief, I somehow feel that I couldn’t enjoy looking at his paintings if he really were like Charles Strickland.