Book Reviews By Tara Mata
THE RAZOR'S EDGE
By W. Somerset Maughan
(Doubleday, Doran & Co., Garden City, N. Y.)
The dean of English novelists, best-known for his Of Human Bondage, attempts in his latest book a theme which might be summarized as "liberation from human bondage." The Razor's Edge takes its title from a stanza in the Katha Upanishad: "The sharp edge of a razor is difficult to pass over; thus the wise say the path to salvation is hard."
Mr. Maughan tells us, in his opening chapter, that the tale is a true one, and that its central character is an American whom the author first met in Chicago in 1919. The youth, to whom Maughan gives the fictitious name of Lawrence Darrell, was at that time an ex-aviator of World War 1. Darrell says: "When I was flying above the clouds and they were like an enormous flock of sheep below me I felt that I was at home with infinitude."
These words are a due not only to Darrell's subsequent personal search for truth, but also to a new consciousness now dawning in the present generation of young aviators, so much more numerically important than the few pioneer fliers of the earlier war. If the broad skies have been the scenes of carnage, and their sanctities outraged by fire, let us take hope in the testimony of a thousand birdmen that their eyes have seen beyond the bloody mist into a thrallless "home of infinitude." The earth has now loosed her ancient chains; the challenge of heaven is heard in a tongue intelligible at last to mortal men.
In recording his recollections of Darrell, Maughan explains his motivation thus: "It may be that the way of life that he has chosen for himself and the peculiar strength and sweetness of his character may have an ever-growing influence over his fellow men so that, long after his death perhaps, it may be realized that there lived in this age a very remarkable creature." To the novelist, however, it appeared puzzling that his friend chose to stay five years in India in search of unfathomables.
The last two years of his odyssey were spent at the hermitage of an Indian yogi. "What he taught was very simple," Darrell later explains to Maughan. "He taught that we are all greater than we know and that wisdom is the means to freedom. He taught that it is not essential to salvation to retire from the world, but only to renounce the self. He taught that work done with no selfish interest purifies the mind and that duties are opportunities afforded to man to sink his separate self and become one with the universal self. But it wasn't his teaching that was so remarkable; it was the man himself, his benignity, his greatness of soul, his saintliness. His presence was a benediction. I was very happy with him. I felt that at last I had found what I wanted. The weeks, the months passed with unimaginable rapidity."
When Maughan, by attitude rather than speech, questioned whether, after all, Darrell's patient search had resulted in any lasting illumination, his friend went on to describe the culminating point of his life, an experience in cosmic consciousness, as follows:
"I'd never known such exaltation and such a transcendent joy. I had a strange sensation, a tingling that arose in my feet and traveled up to my head, and I felt as though I were suddenly released from my body and as pure spirit partook of a loveliness I had never conceived. I had a sense that a knowledge more than human possessed me, so that everything that had been confused was dear and everything that had perplexed me was explained. I was so happy that it was pain and I struggled to release myself from it, for I felt that if it lasted a moment longer I should die,- and yet it was such rapture that I was ready to die rather than forego it. How can I tell you what I felt? No words can tell the ecstasy of my bliss."
When the author concludes, on his last page, that Darrell's tale is a "success story," inasmuch as he achieves happiness in terms acceptable to his nature, the reader is not inclined to dispute with him. This unanimity of opinion springs not so much from Mr. Maughan's persuasive art, though that is great, as from the stark nobility of his theme ' soaring beyond the earthly taint.
NIGHT UNTO NIGHT By Philip Wylie
Farrar & Rinehart, N. Y.
Mr. Wylie's latest book is reminiscent of Generation of Vipers, his razored denunciation of the contemporary scene. Though structurally a novel, Night Unto Night is essentially what the author calls it in his Preface - "a religious book." After we have ploughed through-this reviewer somewhat impatiently-the customary aridities of the "novel"-those love affairs and outward caperings which adhere to the traditional "plot" we come upon rewarding evidence of a mind deeply concerned with man's basic integrities.
The arresting title of the book indicates the author's assault upon the heavens, whose treasure is light. The profound phrase occurs in Psalm 19: "The heavens declare the glory of God: and the firmament sheweth his handiwork. Day unto day uttereth speech, and night unto night sheweth knowledge."
One of the chief characters of the book is an American professor in the grip of an incurable disease. From the desperations born of foreknowledge of premature extinction, he proceeds to the sweet sanities of a natural adjustment to life, which includes death and overcircles it. Which, then, with an effortless ease, he perceives the Oversoul.
In passages which might, for their authenticity, be a page out of the medieval mystics, Mr. Wylie outlines the professor's experience of cosmic consciousness. The description follows:
"He stood still and quietude came into his mind. The world of sound and angles, of smells, shapes and vibrations commingled, melted, and flowed away from him. He was alone with himself. This, he thought, is not vision but the withdrawal of earthly vision. He waited patiently for more to happen. He had a sense of movement -not in one direction but in all the directions of expansion; he was gradually enabled to perceive the comfort of his shining, gray nothingness-both from the center of it and from its ever-widening peripheries. The light increased and became blinding - a classic white light and, presently, the whiteness beyond passion. All at once the brightness took on every hue. He knew that he was what he was observing and what he was experiencing.
"I am this, he thought. This perfect awareness. This sentient geometry. This polychromatic infinitude. I must halt here and discover what it is, then, that I am. He studied to do so. He could feel phrases trying themselves in response to his endeavor. Here is the heart of me and the heart of the universe-time viewed without emotion-the changing shape of space, and its colors. Out of this comes art, music, knowledge. This is the mathematical seed of living. Beyond good and evil, pain and pleasure, thought and matter, lies this construction-this becalmed ecstasy-this crystallized forever.
"He lost, suddenly, his identification with the expansion of the figure, and was merely contained by it for a brief moment. Then, as he strove to recapture the whole experience, he found the external half of it growing white around him again. His temporal sensibilities were restored. It means, he thought-it meant, he amended… so much more than I could gather in that little moment. I shall have to find it again-to find it by search -by recollection and study-for I belong there ....
"What was it? The experience of the primordial atom which had exploded into the universe? Its equivalent in consciousness? The Vedas had foretold as much. Abbe LeMaitre had hypothesized it. Philosophers and physicists: The full course of the phylogeny of memory runs back to the start and forward to the end."
TIME MUST HAVE A STOP By Aldous Huxley
(Harper & Bros., N. Y.)
The three recent books reviewed in this issue have something more in common than authorship by front-rank novelists. Each of them portrays, in one of its chief characters, a type of enlightened man destined for a happier fate than the disintegration of character and human relationships customary in the current literature of cynical "realism." It is heartening, one may lyrically say it is "inspiring," to see fiction directed away from a despairing skepticism and focused on the auroral haloes of man.
It is true that Maughan, Wylie and Huxley appear to be in a quandary, and to have one eye on their public and the other on a pulpit. The reactions of the reader are equally mismated, and he is seldom sure whether he is in the midst of a bacchanal tableau or a philosophic treatise.
Aldous Huxley's newest novel owes its title to an oracular passage in Shakespeare:
But thought's the slave of life,
And life's ….time's fool,
That takes survey of all the world,
Must have a stop.
Mr. Huxley illuminates these lines, as follows: "It is only by taking the fact of eternity into account that we can deliver thought from its slavery to life. And it is only by deliberately paying our attention and our primary allegiance to eternity that we can prevent time from turning our lives into a pointless or diabolic foolery. The divine Ground is a timeless reality. Seek it first, and all the rest-everything from an adequate interpretation of life to a release from compulsory self-destruction-will be added."
Mr. Huxley, whose undeniable gifts as a novelist serve to obscure his far greater powers as a philosopher, is well-acquainted with parts of India's vast religious literature. Comparing it with Western conceptions, he writes: "The difference between metaphysics now and metaphysics in the past is the difference between word-spinning which makes no difference to anybody and a system of thought associated with a transforming discipline. 'Short of the Absolute, God cannot rest, and having reached that goal He is lost and religion with Him.' That is Bradley's view, the modern view. Sankara was as strenuously an Absolutist as Bradley-but with what an enormous difference! For him, there is not only discursive knowledge about the Absolute, but the possibility (and the final necessity) of a direct intellectual intuition, leading the liberated spirit to identification with the object of its knowledge.
'Among all means of liberation, Bhakti or devotion is supreme. To seek earnestly to know one's real nature-this is said to be devotion. In other words, devotion can be defined as the search for the reality of one's own Atman,' and the Atman, of course, is the spiritual principle in us, which is identical with the Absolute. The older metaphysicians did not lose religion; they found it in the highest and purest of all possible forms."
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