More concerned to know than to judge

Malcolm Cowley once characterized Somerset Maugham’s attitude toward humanity as “the milk of human kindness half-soured.” For his part, Maugham freely admitted, “I’ve always been interested in people, but I don’t like them.” But he argued that he wasn’t cynical — just realistic. “All I have done,” he said, “is to bring into prominence certain traits that many writers shut their eyes to.” (From Contemporary Authors Online.)

Many of the author’s characters share his tendency to regard other people as so many bugs under glass.

In The Moon and Sixpence, a short, engrossing novel loosely based on the life of Gaugin, a middle-aged English stockbroker named Strickland abandons his family and runs off to Paris, and finally Tahiti, to paint. The writer narrator is equally fascinated and repulsed by Strickland, and periodically he puzzles over his own inability to render a moral judgment on the painter’s blithe disregard for the feelings of everyone around him:

Until long habit has blunted the sensibility, there is something disconcerting to the writer in the instinct which causes him to take an interest in the singularities of human nature so absorbing that his moral sense is powerless against it. He recognises in himself an artistic satisfaction in the contemplation of evil which a little startles him; but sincerity forces him to confess that the disapproval he feels for certain actions is not nearly so strong as his curiosity in their reasons. The character of a scoundrel, logical and complete, has a fascination for his creator which is an outrage to law and order. I expect that Shakespeare devised Iago with a gusto which he never knew when, weaving moonbeams with his fancy, he imagined Desdemona. It may be that in his rogues the writer gratifies instincts deep-rooted in him, which the manners and customs of a civilised world have forced back to the mysterious recesses of the subconscious. In giving to the character of his invention flesh and bones he is giving life to that part of himself which finds no other means of expression. His satisfaction is a sense of liberation.

The writer is more concerned to know than to judge.

There was in my soul a perfectly genuine horror of Strickland, and side by side with it a cold curiosity to discover his motives. I was puzzled by him, and I was eager to see how he
regarded the tragedy he had caused in the lives of people who had used him with so much kindness. I applied the scalpel boldly.

Critics have charged that Maugham’s villains are wholly unnuanced and unsympathetic — see, for example, this 1919 review from the Guardian — but what interests me most about The Moon and Sixpence is the subtle but building implication that the narrator relates far more to Strickland’s brutality than he’d like to pretend.


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