The answer’s in the carpet

June 15, 2009

I recently searched for the meaning of life. Literally. I entered the phrase in a Google search hoping to quickly locate a passage of such content from William Somerset Maugham’s classic coming-of-age novel, Of Human Bondage. Obviously, I needed to refine my search, but eventually Google delivered what I was looking for, and much more. It came in an absorbing essay published in Open Letters Monthly: An Arts and Literature Review.

The essayist shares his experience of being forced to drop out of college because of an oppressive tuition bill. He turns to Of Human Bondage in his journey of loss and reawakening, saying: “I figured, in the depressing, starved landscape in which I resided, I could do worse than to knock on Mr. Maugham’s door and ask for some help.” 

Of Human Bondage, originally published in 1915 and considered Maugham’s masterpiece, is a semi-autobiographical work that follows the life of protagonist Philip Carey. Born with a club foot, this memorable character enters the world not only deformed, but an orphan. As an adult, he aspires to be an artist in Paris, and then a doctor in London, struggling with money and love. At one point, his friend, Cronshaw, points him toward the meaning of life:

“Have you ever been to the Cluny, the museum? There you will see Persian carpets of the most exquisite hue and of a pattern the beautiful intricacy of which delights and amazes the eye. In them you will see the mystery and the sensual beauty of the East, the roses of Hafiz and the wine-cup of Omar; but presently you will see more. You were asking just now what was the meaning of life. Go and look at those Persian carpets, and one of these days the answer will come to you.”

Philip’s epiphany arrives a few hundred pages later. In essence, he realizes that a person’s life is its own woven pattern of exquisite hue and detail. Some patterns/lives are simple, some elaborate. What that epiphany ultimately leads Philip to think about the meaning of life isn’t a conclusion I agree with. But the beauty and power of Cronshaw’s Persian carpet as a means to teach Philip has remained with me ever since I first read Of Human Bondage 30 years ago. At that time, not unlike the essayist in Open Letters Monthly, life events were unraveling my sense of stability, and whatever logic I’d once held for my future got lost.  This classic, that I read in the library of Chicago’s Art Institute on my lunch hours, became a refuge. Perhaps that’s why the metaphor stuck all these years. 

A final note: Traveling in Alaska in 2001, I met a man who said he didn’t read books.  I wanted to say something that would make him unbearably curious, driving him to open a book. So I said, “If you read Of Human Bondage, you’ll learn the meaning of life.” He laughed.  I said, “No, seriously.” 

Update: This blog post was updated 4.26.11 with a new photo of the book plus edits that tightened the copy but did not change its content or meaning.

2 Responses to “The answer’s in the carpet”

  1. Bill Says:

    Of Human Bondage was free for a Kindle, and that got me started. The blog review was the only thing that kept me going. In the beginning, the book seemed heavy and depressing. I’m not quite sure why or how, but the book slowly became more and more interesting without really changing.

    It tries to explain things. While describing about 20 years in the life of Philip Carey, Maugham does a running commentary to explain what is really going on. He goes inside characters to explain psychology and motivations. He uses discussions between characters to delve into philosophy. He uses situations to explain the cause and effect of behavior. I think many of his characters are created to show a particular personality type or issue. For the most part, Maugham’s comments and insights range from interesting to brilliant to amazing. The book is loaded with them. Sometimes the 100 year age of the novel shows, but I still found much of what he has to say easy to relate to.

    Since the review emphasized the meaning of life, I made note of my own views for comparison, before reading the book. It turned out that my views were different in wording but actually close to Philip Carey’s views. One thing I didn’t think about was the implications of those views. Carey discusses that in detail. I ended up agreeing with him completely.

    Refuge is a good description of this novel and a good use. There is a lot to think about in every chapter. There are chapters upon chapters. The book invites settling in, and that turns out to be a rewarding experience. I’m already thinking about reading it again.

    Like


  2. Amazing! Its truly amazing article, I have got much clear
    idea about from this post.

    Like


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