Breaking Bad’ and modern day tragedy

Breaking Bad is widely regarded as one of the greatest television series of all time. By the time the series finale aired, the series was among the most-watched cable shows on American television. The show received numerous awards, including sixteen Primetime Emmy Awards, eight Satelite Awards, two Golden Globe Awards, two Peabody Awards and a People’s Choice Award. In 2013, Breaking Bad entered the Guiness World Records as the highest rated show of all time.

– http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Breaking_Bad

The show which lasted five seasons, between 2008 and 2013 is described by series creator Vince Gilligan as one in which the protagonist becomes the antagonist.  It tells of the metamorphosis of middle class high school teacher, Walter White who missed big chances to be an award winning chemist and finds himself turning 50, working two jobs to support a pregnant wife, a disabled son and a diagnosis of inoperable cancer. Brother-in-law Hank is a drug enforcement administration [DEA] officer and laughs with Walter about the money in meth amphetamines, and before the first episode is out, Walter is attempting to cook premium crystal meth from the back of an RV in the desert of New Mexico.

breaking bad

 

His subsequent journey into the criminal underworld, reveals to him a grit and determination and a “bad ass” fighting spirit long hidden in his middle class comfort. Initiatlly motivated by the high fees for cancer treatment and to provide for his family, Walter maximises his chemistry prowess to cook the best crystal meth in Alberquerque, becoming both successful and more  and more compromised, descending deeper into the criminal world throughout the series, and  becoming less and less a sympathetic antihero.

An article in the New Stateman recently, refers to David P Pierson opening essay in , Breaking Bad: Critical Essays on the Contexts, Politics, Style and Reception of the Television Series. Pierson’s essay, examines how the show has such a terrible and enduring resonance.

Breaking Bad is, he argues, a demonstration of the true consequences of neoliberal ideology: the idea that “the market should be the organising agent for nearly all social, political, economic and personal decisions”. Under neoliberal criminology, the criminal is not a product of psychological disorder, but “a rational-economic actor who contemplates and calculates the risks and the rewards of his actions”. And there is Walter White in a nutshell.

– http://www.newstatesman.com/culture/2014/12/capitalist-nightmare-heart-breaking-bad

The phenomenal popularity of the show is curious in the contemporary climate. For it’s darkness, the moral narrative is complex. A good man, turns to crime to support hims family. He takes on the criminal world to make dirty money clean. His disenchantment with cosy middle class life and the hand of cards dealt him, forces him to take matters into his own hands and to become somewhat of a renegade. However, his personal dissolution and increasing moral compromise winds downward without much sign of redemption.

2014+50 Breaking Bad Ralph Steadman2

The show combines some familar narrative elements we are comfortable with – the disenchanted male leaving the domestic sphere to head out into the dessert to do combat vigliante style,  in the Western cowboy tradition. War tales are full of good characters faced with grey moral choices in unspeakable circumstances, drawing on both good and bad motivations to achieve their ends. However, the show was popular throughout the tail end of the GFC and housing bubble collapse in the USA. When life and society let him down, Walter turns bad. Irredeemably so.

Audiences world wide watch with curiosity the dissolution of a man “breaking bad”, going off the moral deepend under terrible stress, so they don’t have to. It’s catharsis.

Breaking Bad was distinctive because we always knew where its road would end. We knew that right from the start, in the way that the first audiences of Shakespeare’s tragedies knew what lay in store for Romeo and Juliet and Macbeth. But these days we like to think that the hero, even if he is an anti-hero, makes it through….. In 21st-century culture it is difficult to consider the fact of mortality, as the surgeon (and this year’s Reith lecturer) Atul Gawande reflects in his recent book Being Mortal. If Walter’s cancer weren’t terminal, there would be no story. There is no escape.

– http://www.newstatesman.com/culture/2014/12/capitalist-nightmare-heart-breaking-bad

The modern day tragedy of epic proportions has gone down in history now as the most popular series of all time – far above comedy, romance, sci-fi, thriller and reality TV. This fact is illustrative of the power of narrative, to with a darkly humorous style,  to map out the depth of human suffering, to journey through terrible moral choices, to give catharsis by telling a nuanced tale of a society and culture and one man’s journey to take things into his own hands.

bb walter white

I say, let tragedy as a genre, live on!

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Science-fiction and permission to wonder.

This week the Wall Street Journal and The Australian both ran an interesting article on the scientific evidence for the existence of a creator. Written by Eric Metaxas, biographer and journalist, the article raises the question of God using scientific arguments.

Metaxas cites the 1966  Time magazine headline, “Is God Dead?”, in which  the astronomer Carl Sagan announced that there were two important criteria for a planet to support life:

  1.  The right kind of star, and
  2. a planet the right distance from that star.

He goes on  to point out that given the roughly octillion — 1 followed by 24 zeros — planets in the universe, there should have been about septillion — 1 followed by 21 zeros — planets capable of supporting life. As of 2014, researches have discovered precisely zero.

Is science showing there really is a God?

http://www.theaustralian.com.au/business/wall-street-journal/is-science-showing-there-really-is-a-god/story-fnay3ubk-1227167151847?nk=26f354557e2c6acf47e6a2d00c0e8baf

 

Metaxas continues to show that as knowledge of the universe has increased, it became clear that there were far more factors necessary for life than Sagan supposed. His two parameters grew to 10 and then 20 and then 50, and so the number of potentially life-supporting planets decreased accordingly. The number dropped to a few thousand planets and kept on plummeting.

As factors continued to be discovered, the number of possible planets plummets below zero. In other words, the odds turned against any planet in the universe supporting life, including this one. Probability says that even we shouldn’t be here. Today there are more than 200 known parameters necessary for a planet to support life — every single one of which must be perfectly met, or the whole thing falls apart. Without a massive planet like Jupiter nearby, whose gravity will draw away asteroids, a thousand times as many would hit Earth’s surface and so forth.

Metaxas concludes, the finetuning necessary for life to exist on a planet is nothing compared with the finetuning required for the universe to exist at all. Alter any one value and the universe could not exist. For instance, if the ratio between the nuclear strong force and the electromagnetic force had been off by the tiniest fraction of the tiniest fraction — by even one part in 100,000,000,000,000,000 — then no stars could have ever formed after the Big Bang at all.

“Multiply that single parameter by all the other necessary conditions, and the odds against the universe existing are so heart-stoppingly astronomical that the notion that it all “just happened” defies common sense.”

What is curious to me about this dialogue is several points:

  1. Western tradition, stemming from the Enlightenment period has placed a sharp divide between discussion around faith or spirituality in relation to science. The religious wars of Europe at the time resulted in an uneasy truce based on the determination to separate church and state, science and religion from each other.  There is almost a ban on public discussion to this day of the combination of these ideas.
  2. However, scientists making strong athiestic statements of the ilk “God is dead” re-enter this debate as guiltily as any churchman or Musliman or Hinduman.
  3. Since the Romantic period of the late 1800s, art and culture has moved strongly towards a more spiritual dialogue, integrating what was denied during the rationalistic period of enlightenment debates. This re-ignited stories of spirits, other worlds, magic, time travel, dreams and re-opened questions of origin and being.
  4. Science fiction is a descendent of the romantic tradition, combining scientific knowledge with permission to wonder and imagine.

Science Fiction, not unlike ancient myth and legend, has long asked these questions with absolute permission. Unembumbered by rhetoric required to separate rationalism and spiritualism, questions of being, life, existence have been freely explored. 

Moreover, the harsh modern and pre-modern debates are largely out of date in contemporary society, a society in which most people and cultures acknowledge a spiritual realm, even if they do not agree to the nature or name of that realm.  Such an article, other than within the close circles of academia still bound to the strict mores of generations past, will not seem surprising at all.

In fact, I believe most people sigh a sigh of relief to hear that science is gradually catching up with the zeitgeist of the time to acknowledge it’s okay to discuss spirituality in the public realm again.

Sophie’s World and the power of Questions

“The most subversive people are those who ask questions.”
Jostein Gaarder, Sophie’s World

The novel “Sophie’s World” follows the events around Norwegian school girl,  Sophie Amundsen’s 15th birthday. She mysteriously receives letters addressed to a girl called Hilde Moller Knag and typed pages containing a short course in western philosophy.  When Sophie befriends an elderly professor Alberto Knox she learns that it is he who is instructing her in the course on philsophy. Their journey takes stranger turns however, as they both seek to identify the elusive Hilde Moller Knag and the author of the post cards, Albert Knag.

philosophers

Alberto delivers to Sophie, a course in  western philosophy spanning from pre-socratic philosophy, to modernist Jean-Paul Sartre. She journeys with Alberto through Hellenistic philsophy, Christian thought, the middle ages, renaissance, baroque, enlightenment and romantic periods of western thinking. The Norwegian author Gaarder, addresses an important lack in modern western education- instruction on thought. Sophie’s journey to learn “wisdom” [sophism] becomes our journey.

“So now you must choose… Are you a child who has not yet become world-weary? Or are you a philosopher who will vow never to become so? To children, the world and everything in it is new, something that gives rise to astonishment. It is not like that for adults. Most adults accept the world as a matter of course. This is precisely where philosophers are a notable exception. A philosopher never gets quite used to the world. To him or her, the world continues to seem a bit unreasonable – bewildering, even enigmatic. Philosophers and small children thus have an important faculty in common. The only thing we require to be good philosophers is the faculty of wonder…”
Jostein Gaarder, Sophie’s World

When Sophie has dreams which are fulfilled, she and Alberto begin to suspect some greater mischief is afoot. Gradually they begin to learn that they are part of a story themselves, written by Albert Knag to his daugher Hilde for her 15th birthday. Confused and perplexed at this thought, that the world they inhabit is but the imagining of a superior author, they seek to rebel and run away from he story itself.  Sophie had believed that she was an independent, free being and even then, despite the knowledge that they she is imaginary, Sophie and Alberto deterime to find a way to escape.

h-armstrong-roberts-hands-of-magician-performing-magic-trick-pulling-rabbit-out-of-top-hat

“A lot of people experience the world with the same incredulity as when a magician pulls a rabbit out of a hat.…We know that the world is not all sleight of hand and deception because we are in it, we are part of it. Actually we are the white rabbit being pulled out of the hat. The only difference beween us and the white rabbit is that the rabbit does not realize it is taking part in a magic trick.”
Jostein Gaarder, Sophie’s World

Sophie’s World is a book within a book. Alberto lectures Sophie about philosophy but then we learn that the lectures are really not for Sophie but for Hilde. Yet as readers we realize that the lessons are not in fact for Gaarder’s imaginary characters but for US. The very medium of the book is used to help illustrate philosophical points.  Gaarder presents Philosophy as an ongoing, lifelong pursuit. We alone of all the creatures on earth can engage in philosophical reflection. Although it may not make our lives simpler or give us any easy answers …………………………

“… the only thing we require to be good philosophers is the faculty of wonder…”
Jostein Gaarder, Sophie’s World

O, For a Muse of Fire

Henry V,

Act I, Scene I. Prologue: Enter Chorus

Chorus:

O, for a Muse of fire, that would ascend

The brightest heaven of invention,

A kingdom for a stage, princes to act

And monarchs to behold the swelling scene!

So starts the prologue to Shakespeare’s history, Henry V. In metanarrative the chorus goes on to call attention to the fact that this is but a company of actors, upon wooden boards, within a humble “cockpit” of a theatre, conjuring the magnificent histories of England and the battles of France and England at Agincourt.

shakespeare

…………… But pardon, and gentles all,

The flat unraised spirits that have dared

On this unworthy scaffold to bring forth

So great an object: can this cockpit hold

The vasty fields of France? or may we cram

Within this wooden O the very casques

That did affright the air at Agincourt?

The audience is asked to populate, through their imaginings, the vast armies,  cavalries of horsemen in the battle field, one or two actors transformed into hundreds of characters, and within a few hours, the happenings of years of historical events, all within the “narrow girdle of these walls”

the globe

O, pardon! since a crooked figure may

Attest in little place a million;

And let us, ciphers to this great accompt,

On your imaginary forces work.

Suppose within the girdle of these walls

………

Piece out our imperfections with your thoughts;

Into a thousand parts divide one man,

And make imaginary puissance;

………

For ’tis your thoughts that now must deck our kings,

Carry them here and there; jumping o’er times,

Turning the accomplishment of many years

Into an hour-glass: for the which supply,

Admit me Chorus to this history;

Who prologue-like your humble patience pray,

Gently to hear, kindly to judge, our play.

For ’tis your thoughts that now must deck our kings,” the chorus speaks to the audience, removing the veil of pretence between the two, breaking the “fourth wall”. The adult audience is being asked to enter into the play, to become a part of it by supplying the props, sets, scenery and extraneous cast. The audience is actively PLAY-ing.

shakespearean acting

This holidays I am at home with three neices, between 2 years and 8 years of age. I see them move between games and conversation, pausing casually to nibble imaginatively on a wooden piece of cake painted brightly. One sits dialoguing with her dolls,  the other role playing with costumes. Their pace is constant, like tightly wound tops they move without ceasing,  activity after activity, sometimes absorbed, sometimes quarrelsome. They are a marvel of imaginative involvement, mostly content unless tired or hungry.

All the time I see them learning. Learning to hit a ping pong ball for the first time, swinging and missing, and slowing learning coordination.  When restrained too long amidst adult conversation they grow restless and sulky, wanting desperately to keep on playing. Play, play, they want to play. The little knowledge I have of early education is that play is essential to childhood learning. It is a marvel of nature that children are compelled to play, to imagine and to explore. Difficult things are learned daily, a fearful world is explored and mysterious customs of the adult world, far beyond comprehension absorbed by imitation.

I reflect on the year of learning I have experienced – I would describe it “painful”, marked by “failure”, “hard work” at times “discouraging” and mostly “tiring.” When did we lose our sense of PLAY when learning new and difficult things? Why is not every new endeavour covered all around by imagination and role playing?

Furthermore I view a world troubled by international events, politics, religion, commerce, power. How can we as adults enter the “cockpit” of the Globe Theatre, and learn the messy business of life from a company of rag-tag actors and artisans? How can we thump each other with wooden swords, and die deaths from vials of poisons, bleed with ribboned blood and then rise at the end to bow and exit stage left? How can we play out our conflicts and not hurt each other deeply

How can our life and learning by led by “a muse of fire”?

Fiction cannot be False

The power of art is to speak the truth. In fact, it is of utmost importance that artists treat their work and their subjects as real places with living beings. Audiences detect fakes – even within fantasy worlds. How curious, right? Ethan Gilsdorf affirms my views in his latest review of  “The Hobbit: Battle of Five Armies” in Wired this week. He scathingly decries Jackson’s prequels as “losing the plot” – literally. He writes:

J.R.R. Tolkien once said that “believable fairy-stories must be intensely practical. You must have a map, no matter how rough.” But in Peter Jackson’s new and final Hobbit film, The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies, which opened Wednesday, there is no map. There’s not even a plan. We veer far not just from Middle-earth, but from all plausibility.

middle earth

Gilsdorf continues to list sequence after sequence of mind bending CGI chases and escapes. He lists among them, rabbit-drawn sleds, physics-bending chases along wooden catwalks and bridges within the Goblin caves, fights sequences which resort to three-stooges antics and pratfalls, river barrel rides resembling a theme park ride, and a silly elf-dwarf romance planted surely to appeal to teenage girl audiences  – and many others which undermine the credibility of the films.

You can’t fault Jackson for his physical world-building. The attention to detail—every set, every special effect, every prop and suit of armor and ruined town, every last smouldering candlestick and dragon scale—is unparalleled. Middle-earth feels real. But in these Hobbit movies, the more important thing to get right is situational realism: How the plot turns, what the characters do, if they move through space in a believable way. All this is thrown out the door. The sincerity of Thorin and Bilbo’s struggles is completely undermined by the story’s blanket disregard for physics, logic, and credibility. Gone into the ether is Tolkien’s gentle, thoughtful, and more plausible children’s tale.

The new Battle of Five Armies, stoops to even lower lows in Gilsdorf’s mind, to reach new levels of computer generated “kinetic fury”, more like “Mortal Combat” than an epic masterpiece of literature or film.

“Without the cooperation of the Tolkien estate, there can’t be more films,” Jackson said at a press conference after The Battle of the Five Armies‘ world premiere in London. At the moment, Tolkien’s heirs don’t seem eager to sell the movie rights to any of his other works. Like the Elves who depart Middle-earth for Valinor, it seems that Jackson’s hold over Tolkien’s will someday fade.

smaug

 

Not unlike George Lucas’ efforts to revive Star Wars,  Jackson it seems has largely messed it up for die-hard fans, with shallow characters and an over-reliance on CGI and effects. Modern fantasy has its roots in classical myth and legend, something Tolkein knew intimately. He respected ancient literature and language and sought to create a mythical saga that rivalled the greats.  The time he spent crafting languages, a depth of history, genealogies, sub cultures, geographic believability and a political and economic environment,  all created architecture for his characters to live and breath real lives.

When we read, watch or listen to a story – we inhabit the story. For many audience members, this inhabitation is not merely an escape for 2 hours on a holiday but a journey they will be willing to make again and again if the world is crafted carefully for them to be believable and the journey of the protagonists a journey that brings them self realisation, courage or peace.

May we have more fiction that tells the truth.

The Voice

Here is a personal post for my 7 readers.

For those who know me, I’ve spoken for years about writing. Perhaps even since primary school I have wanted to write but have not. I’ve loved books so much I would hug them as though they were good friends and take them to bed or to the bath.   For me happiness is a good story that transports me along its journey and makes me feel life is bearable.

My hesitation in writing has not only been laziness. It’s been fear. When I write I don’t like what I say or how it comes out. It’s hard work to chase down an idea and convert it into a paragraph, an essay and mostly a story. If it doesn’t come out perfectly then it’s not worth writing. And so I don’t write.

From senior high school I lost my voice. By this I mean I’ve trembled everytime I get up to speak in front of others. My head is brimming with ideas but I cannot articulate them. I stay quiet but feel abused by extroverts who speak every thought and overlook the quiet ones. For some,  quietness equals lack of personality or intellect.  I feel ignored for my lack of flair, fashion, finances and for many years, lack of romantic other.

So writing now, though small, is an effort to tap into my voice. It’s an effort to squeak out my thoughts. It’s an effort to express something of what is inside. It’s an effort to grow up and move beyond the high school kid scared of speaking in public.

I’m still afraid, as though exposed and naked, as though putting my heart on a plate and to still find that I’m ignored and ignoble.  I’m not Shakespeare so why try, right ? This is where you can help. To help, you can dialogue with me.  You can reply to anything I write with comments, whether it’s that something made sense, or didn’t make sense, whether an idea was interesting or not interesting. That you hear me and bounce back ideas will be immensely helpful.  If commenting isn’t possible you can always send me an email to jennifer@rsn8.org.

Thank you !

The Importance of not being Earnest

“The pure and simple truth is rarely pure and never simple.” ― Oscar Wilde, The Importance of Being Earnest

Oscar Wilde was famous for his wit, and satire.  One of the most famous playwrights of the 19th C he specialised in pointing out duplicitous behaviour, vanity and vice. While on the surface he produced witty comedies,  underneath he critiqued society forcing the audience to soften harsh social codes.

“Morality is simply the attitude we adopt towards people we personally dislike.” ― Oscar Wilde, An Ideal Husband

picture of dorian grey

 

Wilde managed to change the behaviour and attitudes of his and subsequent generations by pointing out harsh moral codes such as gender roles, attitudes to illegitimacy, and sexual and religious mores. Wilde also presented his own flamboyant passion aestheticism in the face of Victorian asceticism. How can one man’s literary endavours be so powerful upon society?

“Paradoxically though it may seem, it is none the less true that life imitates art far more than art imitates life.” ― Oscar Wilde

How can this be so ? How can art and narrative be so instructive ? This power of story is what I would like to explore. In this case the genre of satire. The following definition begins to analyse the power of satire:

Satire is a genre , in which vices, follies, abuses, and shortcomings are held up to ridicule, ideally with the intent of shaming individuals, corporations, government or society itself, into improvement. Although satire is usually meant to be humorous, its greater purpose is often constructive social criticism using wit as a weapon and as a tool to draw attention to both particular and wider issues in society. Satire ranges in “degrees of biting” from the hot end to kidding and lesser evils. Teasing however is  limited to a  shallow parody of appearance or nature, drawing empathy towards the individual it is directed towards. Satire instead goes against the power and its oppressors, it is subversive in nature with moral dimension drawing judgement against its targets.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Satire

importance of being earnest

Narrative shows, as though through dream, the words and actions of another. The protagonist invariably represents the self – their foibles, our human faults, their vices, our human ills.  Such imagery allows the audience to see and to judge with objectivity. The audience can address the “log in one’s own eye”, with the same clarity with which we “remove the speck from our neighbours eye.” The protagonist can bear the weight of judgement, like a scape-goat, effectively allowing behaviour change without deep self-mortification.

“Man is least himself when he talks in his own person. Give him a mask, and he will tell you the truth.” ― Oscar Wilde

The power of satire is what it implies – “the satiric norm”. This is the ideal against which the faults and failings of society, characters and scenes are held. The Satiric norm is the ideal behaviour from which the character has fallen and to which the audience must aspire.  The satiric norm allows the narrative to be instructive, pushing the audience to both hope for a better world and aspire to change themselves.

talawa waiting godot

Satire differs greatly from the literary genre of absurdism, characteristic of some literature in the 20th century, particularly around or post-world wars. Absurdism is characterised by nihilism, or a disbelief in any over arching meaning to life despite the earnest search on behalf of humanity. Samuel Beckett’s “Waiting for Godot” is a perfect example of absurdism. While sharing characteristics of satire, absurdism has no “norm” against which characters are held and so consequently no hope for a better world or change. The very search for meaning is absurd and thus vice and folly swim adrift alongside love and loyalty.

“Humanity takes itself too seriously. It is the world’s original sin. If the cave-man had known how to laugh, History would have been different.” ― Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray

To me the advent of absurdism signals the end of satire, the end of the ability to laugh at oneself, the end of our ability to hope for a better world or to challenge ourselves to change. The melancholy of absurdism, advented by existentialism, places meaning within the self, and not defined from any external realm of justice or truth.  The significance of “not” being too earnest, of retaining the ability to poke fun and to criticise ourselves and society, means we retain a belief in a better world, one where humans have a standard of behaviour and being conducive to human flourishing.

Art must keep us laughing.

“Life is far too important a thing ever to talk seriously about.” ― Oscar Wilde, Lady Windermere’s Fan

 

The Darkness of Faery

Do you ever marvel at how dark fairy stories are? The original Grimm’s tales have been sweetened and sanitised in their modern versions for Disney picture books. In Cinderella, the ugly sisters chop off their own toes to fit into the glass slipper. In Snow White, the huntsman brings a deer liver to the wicked Queen in a golden chest and the woman eats it, believing it to be the girl’s. When Snow White marries Prince Charming, the wicked Queen is invited to the wedding where she is punnished by having to wear iron-hot shoes and dance untils she drops dead.

Is it better to have children’s stories without witches and wizards, goblins, dragons, devils, monsters or ghosts? Should children face death, abandonment, exile, slavery or worse ?  G K Chesterton gives the best explanation of how to view darkness in fairy stories:

Fairy tales then, are not responsible for producing in children fear or any of the shapes of fear; fairy tales do not give the child the idea of the evil or the ugly; that is in the child already, because it is in the world already. Fairy tales do not give the child his first idea of bogey. What fairy tales give the child is his first clear idea of the possible defeat of bogey. The baby has known the dragon intimately ever since he had an imagination. What the fairy tale provides for him is a St. George to kill the dragon. Exactly what the fairy tale does is this: it accustoms him for a series of clear pictures to the idea that these limitless terrors had a limit, that these shapeless enemies have enemies in the knights of God, that there is something in the universe more mystical than darkness, and stronger than strong fear.  

GK Chesterton, Tremendous Trifles (1909), XVII: “The Red Angel”

gk chesterton

Of Human Bondage

The semi-autobiographical novel “Of Human Bondage” by Somerset Maugham, tells the story of Phillip Carey, an orphan raised by his conservative aunt and uncle, who escapes to Europe, trains as an artist before returning to London to qualify as a doctor. In his journeys, he explores the continent, art, life, love and freedom. And he finds it a bondage.

Particularly Phillip’s love for waitress Mildred is a poignant illustration of the bondage of this freedom. She does not reciprocate his feelings, leaving him several times for other lovers. Maugham’s title  ‘human bondage’, is borrowed from the title of Spinoza’s Part IV of Ethics, “Of Human Bondage” or the Strength of the Emotions. Spinoza lists peoples inability to control their emotions as a bondage.

OHB

For Phillip Carey, peace is found when he settles down as a respectable Doctor to marry the daughter of a shopkeeper friend. He learns that “the simplest pattern, that in which a man was born, worked, married, had children, and died, was likewise the most perfect.” His submission to normalcy, or the conventional ‘bondage’ of society is in fact the freedom he seeks from the tyranny of his own emotions.

This notion reminds me of Soren Kierkegaard’s 1844 treatise, The Fear of Dread, or the Fear of Anxiety. Here Kierkegaard explores the dual fear of vertigo and desire to jump; anxiety and dread arises from the freedom to choose. The terrifying possibilities create “dizziness of freedom.”

kierkegaard

Maugham exposes the catch-22 of the modern dilemma of freedom – all the time one is truly free, there exist a multitude of choices assaulting us, engaging our emotions. For Phillip Carey, peace is found by removing himself from this anxiety of freedom by surrender to the confines of a domestic existence, a profession, a wife and family. Here he cannot be kept in bondage by his feelings of love, loss, the anxiety of choosing.  It’s a modern dilemma but also a timeless dilemma played out in literature from the tragedy of Adam and Eve, through to contemporary poets and philosophers. Can we be truly free?