When a genius thrives in isolation

What happens when a happily married middle-aged man decides to abandon his family and pursue his passion to become a painter? In W. Somerset Maugham’s famous novel, The Moon and Sixpence, the central protagonist, forty-year-old Charles Strickland, who is a stockbroker by profession, refuses to embrace the seduction of certainty that his boring and unexciting job affords him; he tries to snap out of an existential vacuum that eats him up from within; in the end, the painter, stricken with leprosy, dies a tragic death, but not before painting his magnum opus. Published in 1919, this novel continues to resonate with bibliophiles even today for its compassionate and sensitive study of the psyche of a genius for whom creativity takes precedence over everything in life. The novel remains a testament to the human spirit.

Freedom from Emotional Bondage

Painting for Strickland becomes some sort of a zahir, an objective, a kind of madness, but the road to achieving it is paved with difficulties and innumerable odds. The metastasizing absurdities of life hit him like a ton of bricks and accelerate the spinning circle of depression and aloofness. He wipes the slate clean to restart life and lead an unfettered existence in pursuit of his ambition, which he finds finally sublimated in his creations.

At the age of forty, Strickland, in a flash of epiphany, perceives the horizon of a world in which he can seek freedom from any sort of social and emotional bondage. As a painter, he wants to rise above prosaic and mundane concerns; even at the expense of isolating his family and children. Till the end, Strickland, not even once, feels tormented by the phantom of guilt.

Embracing a Life of Uncertainty

Mrs Strickland is convinced that her husband is maniacally self-centred. Strickland, on the other hand, prefers to accept the grab bag of uncertainty for creative fulfillment, and maybe even for insight-giving satori. For the painter, like Larry, the carefree and feckless protagonist in Razor’s Edge, “the greatest ideal man can set before himself is self-perfection.’’ Anyone looking for some vestigial traces of conscience in this man would be hugely disappointed. To his wife, the decision comes as a punch in the solar plexus: she labours under the delusion that her husband must be busy pursuing the matters of the heart. His bolshie cheekiness at times pulls people up short, including his family members. Maugham says, “Here was a man who sincerely did not mind what people thought of him, and so convention had no hold on him…”

In the course of the novel, the writer informs us that parental dictates and opposition thwart Strickland’s dream of becoming a painter. Perhaps, he wasted the first flush of his talent during his teenage years. He says, “I rather wanted to be a painter when I was a boy, but my father made me go into business because he said there was no money in art.”

Satisfied to Lead His Chosen Life

Strickland wants to be no more than himself. In the painter, Maugham portrays a man, who always “lived a life wholly of the spirit…He lived in a dream, and the reality meant nothing to him.” Strickland is averse to the idea of selling his paintings for self-aggrandizement. It is believed that Strickland’s character is based on the famous French painter Paul Gauguin, who never sold his paintings. Strickland is not after fame and fortune. It appears that he chooses to lead a life of creative isolation. He is often accused of being incorrigibly selfish. Henrik Ibsen once said that personal liberation is at bottom self-centred and heartless. He also believed that the basic essence of creativity is to protect one’s essential self, to keep it free from all intrusive elements. At one point, Strickland says, “I look forward to the time when I shall be free from all desire and can give myself without hindrance to my work.”

No wonder, when Strickland moves to France, he cuts himself off from his family and friends to become a painter. For him, his masterpiece will be the apotheosis of his life. He shows much equanimity at times of stress; and ennobles the free life of the mind till the very end. According to him, “art is the greatest thing in the world.” After having seen some of his marvelous paintings, art lovers realize that they have hit upon a gem of purest ray serene.

The Final Masterpiece

Despite living in abject penury with his second wife and children, Strickland paints his final masterpiece on the wall of his hut at a small island in Haiti. The theme of the painting is the “Beginning of the world, the Garden of Eden.’’ The painting serves as a hymn to the “beauty of the human form” and Nature. He instructs her to burn the painting after his death. She does just that, depriving the world of a magnum opus. Perhaps, Strickland does not want it displayed in the halls of the rich bourgeois who would not be able to recognize its true value. It would just be an artifact for them. He never wants his art to fall into the hands of mercenaries. An avant-garde genius, Strickland always lived and created in the moment and not for an unseen tomorrow. His artistic integrity shines like a beacon through his life.

Aditya Mukherjee

The writer is an independent journalist based in Delhi

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