W Somerset Maugham compares turnips and sex. Is he wise, or daft? Can we use his wisdom – if any – to make ourselves happier?
You can listen to a podcast of this post here.
I have written often about happiness on this blog. You might like to look at a summary in my piece The one with the links to happiness.
W Somerset Maugham considers happiness and the meaning of life in his essay The Summing Up, written in 1938. Perhaps we can learn from him. Try not to be put off by the old-fashioned way in which he often refers to “men” when he means “people”
W Somerset Maugham is most famous for his short stories
Maugham on writing
In The Summing Up, Maugham asks whether writing itself is enough for a happy life…
From time to time I have asked myself whether I should have been a better writer if I had devoted my whole life to literature.
… and concludes:
Somewhat early, but at what age I cannot remember, I made up my mind that, having but one life, I should like to get the most I could out of it. It did not seem to me enough merely to write.
Maugham on sociability
Maugham goes on to consider various options for happiness, despite handicaps including a surprisingly antisocial nature:
I was small; I was shy; I had poor health. I had not facility for games, which play so great a part in the normal life of Englishmen; and I had, whether for any of these reasons or from nature I do not know, an instinctive shrinking from my fellow men that has made it difficult for me to enter into any familiarity with them.
Maugham on alcohol
He rejects alcohol as a source of joy for himself, but not necessarily for others:
The weakness of my flesh has prevented me from enjoying that communion with the human race that is engendered by alcohol; long before I could reach the state of intoxication that enables so many, more happily constituted, to look upon all men as their brothers, my stomach has turned on me and I have been as sick as a dog.
Maugham on sex
Maugham then examines sex as a means to fulfilment, noting drily that this works for some:
The keenest pleasure to which the body is susceptible is that of sexual congress. I have known men who gave up their whole lives to this; they are grown old now, but I have noticed, not without surprise, that they look upon them as well spent.
He goes on, however, to observe:
When from time to time I have seen the persons with whom the great lovers satisfied their desires I have been more astonished by the robustness of their appetites than envious of their successes. It is obvious that you need not often go hungry if you are willing to dine off mutton hash and turnip tops.
Maugham on happiness
Maugham concludes that artists are particularly free to choose how to live their lives: an artist can, within certain limits, make what he likes of his life.
Despite this, says Maugham, he has always sought patterns in his life, and does not live enough in the moment:
I have never, except by an effort of will, wished that the passing moment might linger so that I could get more enjoyment from it, for even when it has brought me something I had immensely looked forward to, my imagination in the moment of fulfilment has been busy with the problematical delight of whatever was to come. I have never walked down the south side of Piccadilly without being all in a dither about what was happening on the north. This is folly.
Maugham and the Rocky Horror Picture Show
When I watched “The Rocky Horror Picture Show” performed live in Vienna recently, I was reminded that the song “Rose Tints my World” explores how to be happy in similar terms to Somerset Maugham. Columbia seeks happiness in drugs (‘the only thing that gives me hope is the love of a certain dope’). Rocky seeks it in sex (‘the only thing I’ve come to trust is an orgasmic rush of lust…’).
The meaning of life
What can you conclude from all this, if anything? Here are five ideas:
(i) different people draw happiness from different sources;
(ii) we shouldn’t scorn those who find a satisfying life in physical pleasures such as food and drink;
(iii) it helps to keep a sense of perspective: see here the views of the wonderful Barbara Tuchman in her eponymous law;
(iv) you should bear in mind that it is more profitable for news media to report bad news than good news;
(v) and we should all keep thinking about these issues. W Somerset Maugham may not be right about what makes you happy. But his ideas may contain some useful pointers for you – even if you disagree. Take a look at my books if you want to know more!
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