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Customer Review

112 of 116 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Shows what we are not by holding up a mirror, February 24, 1999
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This review is from: The Razor's Edge (Penguin Twentieth Century Classics) (Paperback)
The Razor's Edge is often described as the story of Larry, a war veteran who forsakes a comfortable life in Chicago "society" for a vague spiritual quest. It is better appreciated as a portrait of his acquaintences, whose conventional lifestyles are starkly contrasted to the path walked by the seeker. Some readers have wished to know more of Larry and criticize the space and attention Maugham lavished upon the "ancillary" characters. The Razor's Edge instead reveals much about the spiritual path by focusing on people more like the typical reader, people who do not give up materialistic Western striving. The best way to see Larry is to look at what he is not.
This narrative technique succeeds wonderfully in the masterful hands of author W. Somerset Maugham, best known for Of Human Bondage. Rather than simply lay out the details of Larry's explorations and development, which, being spiritual and internal, would be rather dull to watch, Maugham illuminates Larry by dissecting the contrasting behavior of his associates.
Maugham lavishes narrative care and attention less on the figure of Larry the seeker, but on his ground, those who embraced the life of conventional society without a thought for spirituality. Maugham shows us several possible outcomes of such an unexamined life, from the indulgent businessman to the fragile social climber to the dissolute substance abuser. The contrasts are presented realistically and without sermon yet are no less stark for their subtlety. These characters are a rare delight: fictional creations with genuine life, who make choices, have unpredictable effects on one another, and grow as the novel develops. Maugham shows how each suffers in their particular ways, for hell is not a physical place but a denial one's relationship with God.
The power and flexibility of relating to oneself as a network of relationships instead of as an object with fixed characteristics and a predictable future is why one of the three key principle of our executive training is "Be Transitive." Larry beautifully expresses all three principles.
He is genuine, always learning, and clear that he is not a fixed quantity but a network of evolving relationships with people, possessions, and God. In short, he is fully alive.
If Maugham had told us the story of Larry without the contrast of his conventional friends, the novel's entire message would have been lost. Ancient mystics, quantum physicists, and existentialist philosophers are all giving us that same message. Neither figure nor ground is the thing itself, nor even both together. There is no "thing" at all, except as we create it in our minds. It is the relationship between figure and ground that gives rise to an experience, and neither can exist without the other. Take away the ground and there is no boundary for the figure, take away the figure and the ground is meaningless. Each is relative to the other and neither stands alone. What are the details of any figure, except another relationship between a figure and its ground? The edge is where the relationships emerge, where experiences occur, where reality manifests. The Razor's Edge.
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Showing 1-5 of 5 posts in this discussion
Initial post: Feb 14, 2009 6:54:57 AM PST
Mike Osborne says:
Wow! This has got to be one of the most insightful reviews I've ever read on Amazon--and beautifully written to boot! Thank you so much for your words!

In reply to an earlier post on Jan 27, 2011 7:07:55 PM PST
the review is a bit repetitive; he seems to express each good idea twice; nevertheless it presents a unique method of looking at the work

Posted on Feb 18, 2013 10:19:45 AM PST
Last edited by the author on Feb 18, 2013 4:03:00 PM PST
Generally good review. To nit-pick a bit: to my mind the reason Maugham concentrates on the other characters rather than Larry is because conventional society revels in drama and conflict, while, as Zen teacher Shunryu Suzuki puts it: "The average person would find enlightenment rather boring." In addition, Maugham knows so much more about conventional society as opposed to the esoteric (but rather humdrum, to the external viewer) life of the spiritual seeker.

The phrase "the razor's edge" is from the ancient Indian Katha Upanishad: "The sharp edge of a razor is difficult to pass over; the wise say the path to Salvation is hard." Of course, this is equivalent to the the Biblical phrase: "Because straight is the gate, and narrow is the way, which leadeth unto life, and few there be that find it (Matthew 7:14)."

Regardless, the figure/ground relationship, or contrasts between Larry and the other characters, works wonderfully in the novel.

Posted on Mar 15, 2013 10:52:49 AM PDT
pemory says:
Thank you. A terrific review of a fine read.

Posted on Apr 18, 2013 5:35:58 AM PDT
I absolutely agree with your insight in the figure-ground business. However, I did find that Maugham's portrayal of the high life came dangerously close to swamping Larry's spiritual progress, rather than merely displaying it.
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