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December 09, 2005

The Razor's Edge

There's not a single African of any sort in The Razor's Edge, except for the drummer in the raucous Parisian Jazz Club. I recently watched the 1946 rendition of this film over a few days and it holds up rather sketchily to my contemporary sensibilities. If W. Somerset Maugham's depiction of American and European society is close to accurate in the film version, it sets me to wondering how it was that Paul Robeson's head didn't explode. If I had lived in those days, I think I would be about as obsessed with race as it's humanly possible to be, and I would have been as tragic a story as any other. Then again, I can't say that I dash my head against the rocks of relative injustice today.

There doesn't seem to be as much to say about The Razor's Edge as I thought there might be after having seen the entire film. Yet for some reason I find it reassuring to me that I understand women better for having watched. What I've never quite understood in all of my life is how much men and women's virtues depended on each other, that neither can be virtuous or debased without each other's virtue or debasement. The whole of the film turns from something of a meditation on the character of man in his quest for enlightenment to a slighly stiff melodrama. And yet simply as a view into a past America and Europe where a certain manner of deportment was mandatory it is very illustrative. What is astonishing to see is the lengths to which a woman of that age would go to maintain a certain standing of virtue. It is heartfelt and singly uncommon, I think. Not that I have had the good fortune, being a technical geek most of my life, to enjoy the company of such women. I am brought to mind of Grace Kelly's character in Rear Window - a society girl who isn't phony.

Is there such a thing in contemporary America? Are we even capable of imagining her? Our women today are of two minds in their ambition and having abandoned the virtues of making a man honest and staying true to him, they seek to compete with men. I am coming to see how this is destructive not only of some 'old fashioned' fantasy of family, but of our very sense of the virtue of fidelity. When we seek truth and honesty from each other today we don't know which truth to reveal. Instead we only confess insecurities about ourselves and our roles in life, indeed each other's lives. That kind of soul baring not what we need - we become too delicate in our intimacies. Rather what we need is to be honest, possesed of integrity in our daily affairs. We need that thing in ourselves that encourages us to become one who might be introduced as Maugham does of his protagonist, as a man of impeccable character. We need that thing in us that allows us to speak up and protect each other from the corruptions of the soul. Instead we compete to show how well we can indulge ourselves and get away with 'respectability'.

I fear we have lost the habits of politesse and high expectation of moral character. In our political correctness, we give it away as if nobody has to conform in any way. In that way PC is just the opposite of what it pretends to be. It is not a refined sensibility at all, but it sacrifices highmindedness in order to avoid highhandedness. It decides to slight nobody in order to raise the low. It's literally an affront to civilization. We think of civilization as a thing to live in, an address to occupy rather than an attribute of ourselves. What a shame.

The uncle in The Razor's Edge is indeed highhanded. A first class snob he is, and yet in his own desparate yet successful way he is relentless in his every effort to perfect himself. Because of this he is utterly without duplicity. I would expect contemporary Americans to hate and mock him on sight. He has mastered the arcana of diplomatic high society in which there is a right and proper convention for every aspect of gentlemanly and ladylike demeanor. And while it is most certain that Americans and Europeans of that age made grotesqueries of themselves because of their inability to, by dint of such class barriers, put their wealth in perspective, the protagonist of The Razor's Edge walks freely across those lines. If he was to be the new man of the West, we have forgot his name.

Maugham bears more review, but I think I'll stick to the books. This movie was a fine introduction.


Are 'nice' and 'honest' mutually exclusive?
Not for people who refine their manners. That is the struggle that few seem to have mastered. But we should try.

Ambrose Bierce called politeness 'The most acceptable hypocrisy.'

Posted by mbowen at December 9, 2005 12:15 AM

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Excellent review and a reminder that I need to reacquaint myself with this book. I read it years ago in high school, and naturally, much of any meaninful message flew right over my head.


Posted by: Sharon Ferguson at December 9, 2005 08:27 AM