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One Encounter: Eight Hours from Home

My name is Steven Brachmann, and I may be broke, but I’ll bet fifty dollars that my autumn was worse than yours.

My life through the summer of 2007 was a relatively relaxed experience. It was not luxurious, but I had settled into a good routine. I had excelled in public school, graduated from a respected Jesuit private high school, gotten myself out of Smalltown, USA, and away from the economically depressed Western New York region by gaining acceptance into Northeastern University in Boston. I spent two years at that school, working to prove to myself that I would be able to succeed in my chosen fields, acting and journalism, and starting to take more than just a hobbyist’s interest in both. In short, life was progressing on schedule. So I was blindsided when, upon returning to Boston for my third year in September, 2007, I was notified that I owed Northeastern my entire Spring 2007 tuition, that it had not been paid, and that I could not attend classes until it was. This dampened the experience of moving into an off-campus apartment with six good friends, making plans for an extended stay in Massachusetts. However, I was assured that as soon as I could furnish the school a cool $10,000 I was sure to be readmitted right away. Due to my nearly non-existent credit, a loan, no matter how steep the terms and limitations, was out of the question. Somehow, I had unwittingly walked straight over a land mine. The following four months were a long process of personal reawakening. The beginning was optimistic, as most beginnings are: I sat in on classes, kept industriously applying for loans and began to take a greater responsibility for my personal finances. But the road was arduous and frustrating. In the face of a $600/month rent payment, as well as other various bills, I had to stop attending the classes I hoped to register for and become a full-time Barnes & Noble employee. Even this didn’t keep my head above water, as the debt began rushing on deck faster than I could bail it out. And, whether connected to my impending financial implosion or not, some of my personal relationships began falling apart on me. I became lost; I cried more in those four months than I can remember crying in any years before, and the 450 mile separation from my family, once a refreshing change of pace, was now a source of anxiety as I realized that I needed help to survive. The dizzying change in my fortunes was punctuated by the fact that, by the time the winter had arrived, I had lost 40 pounds. Many things happened during that phantom fall semester, but it was because I felt so utterly lost that I made the decision in late December to move back home. I felt a little broken walking back into my old bedroom, the one I told myself just four months earlier that I would never live in again. I swore to myself that I would stick it out in Boston until things got better, but I couldn’t and I saw it as weakness on my part. So I threw myself into preparing for my new future: getting a job at a local Tim Horton’s to pay off my debts, choosing a local school where I could finish up my degree. I even picked up the guitar, which I’ve since gotten much better at. But there was still a vacant feeling, like some deep-rooted contentedness had been ripped away from me. My life had been comfortable because I only had one role to play; basic needs were always fulfilled for me, and the necessities of succeeding in the here and now prevented me from thinking about life after the diploma. Being out of school removed higher education as the overriding focus, and now, having had a glimpse of life after college, I was scared of having to relive this nightmare in only a few years away. I wonder today what would have happened had I decided to wait out my desperate situation. What would my life have become? I received constant encouragement from my father, but I had suddenly been cast into a life working full-time, only to see most of my monthly earnings eaten up by my rent check. It took two and a half months for a loan approval to finally come through. And that didn’t necessarily mean I’d be back in school the next January. I knew I had talent as an actor and a writer, but where did I have time to develop those passions? I haven’t been on stage since the early part of that fall, and my writing, once a frustratingly slow-flowing mass of molasses, had completely stagnated. Was that what lay before me, nothing but forty-hour work weeks, a meager writing hobby and a mere pining for the stage rather than taking it by force? To try to stifle some of the constant disappointment of the past fall, I returned to a tried-and-tested emotional remedy that had been a healing salve many times before: immersing myself in movies, books, anything with a story, really, so in the lonely moments, the ones when I’m washing dishes or wiping tables, my vivid imagination could vicariously inhabit other worlds instead of bitterly cursing this one. Movies and music aside, I could only get through a couple of books during those months (Kerouac’s On The Road and Fiction: A Pocket Anthology, a splendid compendium of short fiction edited and compiled by R. S. Gwynn ), but I had made a mental note that I soon needed to pay a visit to an old friend, W. Somerset Maugham’s Of Human Bondage. I figured, in the depressing, starved landscape in which I resided, I could do worse than to knock on Mr. Maugham’s door and ask for some help.

I first received W. Somerset Maugham’s Of Human Bondage near the end of my senior year of high school. I had just finished reading Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations a few weeks earlier, and was enthralled by Dickens’ Victorian descriptions of Pip, the protagonist’s infatuation with the icy Estella (reflecting a hopelessness attached to love that many of my own melodramatic high school experiences mirrored), and the myriad subplots which, woven together, created Dickens’ tapestry. Having already cut my teeth on A Tale of Two Cities, I found myself better able, in my second attempt at Dickensian literature, to understand what I came to recognize as Mr. Dickens’ beautiful use of metaphor and flowery discourse, which served to make Pip’s somewhat tortured experience seem more picturesque than it actually was.

I had an English teacher at this time who I talked to about all manner of things related to academia and the life beyond. I came to her for guidance on the many concerns unnerving an adolescent like myself; I found her to be a repository of information on many subjects that interested me. She was intrigued by my sudden interest in Dickens, and Great Expectations in particular, and we talked about other “coming-of-age” novels. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, The Catcher in the Rye, and a few more of the usual suspects showed up. By the end of our discussion, she had handed me a small, thick, well-loved book in a leathery red hardcover. “Here, take this,” she said. “You might find it interesting.” Dr. Kimmel, you couldn’t have had any idea. Since that day, Of Human Bondage has maintained an unshakeable hold as my favorite novel. I saw much of myself in the protagonist, identified with many of the events and the emotions they evoked, and was filled with a great sense of satisfaction upon finishing the book, having felt that I had discovered a truly great story. For anyone unfamiliar with the novel (for reasons unbeknownst to me, Maugham’s classic is overlooked by many high school curricula, and mention of it – or of Maugham himself – is normally met by blank stares, even among my more well-read friends), Of Human Bondage, published in 1915, follows the story of Philip Carey, a young British man growing up in the southeastern English countryside. Orphaned at nine years old, he is put into the charge of his uncle, the dry, authoritarian Vicar of Blackstable. As is characteristic of the Bildungsroman, the book has no cohesive conflict to tie the narrative together, and instead of the story driving the protagonist’s actions, Of Human Bondage documents Philip’s life through his education at the Christian King’s School in Tercanbury and in Heidelberg, Germany, his apprenticeship as a chartered accountant in London, his study of art in Paris, and his eventual return to London to enter the medical profession. The true beauty of Of Human Bondage is the way it chronicles Philip’s attempt at crafting meaning out of a transient experience, which Philip is consistently redefining. The earliest example of this is the societal isolation caused by his club-foot. His acceptance of his deformity reflects an acquired disappointment in humanity; as he tells the ill-tempered Doctor South, under whom he serves a locum, or brief internship, after receiving his diploma from St. Luke’s Hospital, “People always [refer to it], directly or indirectly, when they get angry with me.” This basic cynicism of humanity was actually one of the first things that endeared me to the main character; my middle finger on my right hand is missing the top knuckle thanks to an ill-fated tussle with a bicycle chain at the age of two. And while it’s nowhere near as noticeable as a club-footed limp, I sympathized with the descriptions of an early Philip being singled out at school for a simple, curable, physical deformity. Philip is also an avid reader, a personality trait that never fails to earn my respect and admiration. Like I said, reading was able to provide material for an imagination gone amok, and by the time I was twelve I was considered an impressively studious bookworm. Philip’s own addiction is prompted by this same drive to create alternate realities he can thrill to. Starting with a picture book of the Holy Land shown him by his aunt,

he began to read, to start with, the stories that dealt with magic, and then the others; and those he liked he read again and again. He could think of nothing else. He forgot the life about him. He had to be called two or three times before he would come to his dinner. Insensibly he developed the most delightful habit in the world, the habit of reading: he did not know that thus he was providing himself with a refuge from all the distress of life; he did not know either that he was creating for himself an unreal world which would make the real world of every day a source of bitter disappointment.

It is the real world that contains the disappointments, and throughout Maugham’s novel, Philip is preoccupied with a desire to find the niche of society in which he was meant to exist. At a young age, he believes that the Church is his calling. However, his religiosity suffers when he prays fervently and fruitlessly for God to heal his club-foot, and he fully casts off the shroud of Christianity while in Heidelberg. Discovering that he has some talent for drawing, he takes off for Paris to study art. However, he gives up this life once he is convinced that he is not good enough to make a living as an artist. One can feel that Philip is waiting for some force to come down from on high, a voice to tell him what he was meant to accomplish in this world: “It seemed to Philip, brooding over these matters, that in the true painters, writers, musicians there was a power which drove them to such complete absorption in their work as to make it inevitable for them to subordinate life to art… But he had a feeling that life was to be lived rather than portrayed, and he wanted to search out the various experiences of it and wring from each moment all the emotions that it offered.” But his switching between life callings leaves one feeling that he doesn’t know what he should be wringing from each moment. From September to December 2007, I had no idea what to wring from my moments, or which moments I should be wringing from. Caught halfway between college dropout and earning my degree, I was full of anxiety over my lack of personal guidance, and I would have been perfectly content to have heard some voice from on high call to me and send me a checklist of main objectives that I needed to complete. It’s not so much the path of least resistance that interests me; I would just like to be able to know, at some point, that I could die and that that would be all right. Lost in last fall’s murkiness, I became panic-stricken over the thought that, if I hadn’t even begun working at accomplishing my life goals (which are many, but to give you an idea, anything less than being named Benevolent Ruler of Empire Earth will be a disappointment), then I could forget about ever climbing atop those pinnacles. Seeing the time and responsibility that went into merely maintaining a pulse scared a 20-year-old used to having about eight hours a day for personal pursuits. I knew once I got out of college, life would be difficult, but this really drove home the idea of the “starving artist” with me. When I first read Of Human Bondage, Philip, hopelessly lovelorn and ambiguous about his calling in life, was the hero; but during this last reading, I became most intrigued by the character of Thorpe Athelny. Philip meets Athelny as a patient during the course of Maugham’s narrative, and Philip finds himself strangely drawn to the man who accounts himself a journalist, though his major contribution to newspapers is composing advertisements for department stores. Brash in manner with a wide-ranging knowledge of the aesthetically beautiful, he is the only character who is able to reconcile his own sacred intellect with the baser world around him. Unlike Cronshaw, the oft-inebriated poet Philip befriends in Paris, Athelny’s thoughts are not so consistently lofty that he ignores life’s necessities and the need to adapt. Unlike Fanny Price, Philip’s schoolmate in Paris whose ambition to be a great painter vastly outweighs her talent, he doesn’t try to forge greatness out of nothing; he is a great figure because he has found a way to carve out a meaningful existence from the everyday. Every part of his character is grandiose, from his five daughters’ given names (Maria del Sol, Maria de los Mercedes, Maria del Pilar, Maria de la Concepion and Maria del Rosario), or the way he explains his dinner arrangements to Philip: “I like these ancient customs. I don’t think that women ought to sit down at table with men. It ruins conversation and I’m sure it’s very bad for them.” He strikes me as the personification of a passage from Thoreau’s Walden: “I came into this world, not chiefly to make this a good place to live in, but to live in it, be it good or bad.” I enjoy the twisting plots and flowing prose of fiction of any shape or size. What I love most, however, are the passages that, through their honest simplicity and personal applications, can show me grains of truth of what this crazy world – both abstract and applied – is really about. They remind me that I’m not alone out here living my life, just screaming into caverns and hoping that I hear an echo. Especially during Philip’s time as a shop-walker at London’s Lynn and Sedley’s department store, I feel a very personal echo in his newfound poverty and despair that closely mirrors my emotional state during the past fall in Boston. This company of misery reminds me that I’m not lost; someone else has lived through this, and prospered even. Of these grains of truth, I believe the metaphor of the Persian rug is one of the most beautiful I’ve come across in literature. One night, at the Closerie des Lilas, the café frequented by Cronshaw, Philip and the poet argue over the meaning of life. Philip’s golden rule, “follow your inclinations with due regard to the policeman around the corner,” is decried by Cronshaw as Christian. Philip, adamant that he long ago personally repudiated the Church, chastises Cronshaw for his fatalism. But Cronshaw holds that no man makes any action in this world that does not bring him some sense of pleasure, which leaves Philip flummoxed: “‘But if all that is true,’ cried Philip, ‘what is the use of anything? If you take away duty and goodness and beauty, why are we brought into the world?’” It’s at this moment that a vendor of Persian rugs steps into the Closerie and begins to push his wares to the café’s patrons. Cronshaw calls him over to let Philip see those rugs, and then has some fun at the vendor’s expense. The vendor leaves, and Cronshaw turns to Phillip:

“Have you ever been to the Cluny, the museum? There you will see Persian carpets of the most exquisite hue and of a pattern the beautiful intricacy of which delights and amazes the eye. In them you will see the mystery and the sensual beauty of the East, the roses of Hafiz and the wine-cup of Omar; but presently you will see more. You were asking just now what was the meaning of life. Go and look at those Persian carpets, and one of these days the answer will come to you.”

With this, he leaves Philip to decipher his true meaning.The puzzle of the Persian rug is referenced a number of times throughout the rest of the novel. Back in London pursuing a medical degree, Philip receives a piece of Persian rug from Cronshaw through Lawson, a painter friend of Philip’s who originally introduced him to the poet in Paris. Later, when Cronshaw returns to England, near death, Philip again broaches the Persian rug subject and asks him what his riddle meant. Cronshaw insists that Philip needs to discover it on his own, or else the answer is meaningless.

Finally, the answer comes to him. At this point, Philip, bankrupt due to poor budgeting practices and an investment gone awry, is working at Lynn and Sedley’s when he once again crosses paths with Lawson, with whom he hadn’t spoken for quite some time. Lawson notifies Philip about the death of Hayward, an old friend of Philip’s from his Heidelberg days. To Philip, Hayward was a failure; at Heidelberg, his intellect promised so much, but by the end of his life he had done nothing of consequence to the world from which he had just passed. Philip faces the emptiness of existence directly and concludes that, if life is so pointless, then whatever one does during one’s life cannot be of any consequence:

And that was why Cronshaw, he imagined, had given him the Persian rug. As the weaver elaborated his pattern for no end but the pleasure of his aesthetic sense, so might a man live his life, or if one was forced to believe that his actions were outside his choosing, so might a man look at his life, that it made a pattern.

Convinced of life’s meaninglessness, Philip is relieved. He can end the obsession over his role in life and what he was meant to accomplish. But he still ambles aimlessly about; his newfound philosophy is not empowering. Coming into a modest inheritance from the death of his uncle, Philip is able to leave his life of poverty and finish his medical education. He has dreams of earning a hospital appointment and traveling abroad as a ship’s doctor. It’s here that Philip serves his locum under Doctor South, who, seeing how well he connects with the locals, offers Philip a partnership. Philip, flattered, indicates that he has other plans. These plans suffer a serious blow when Philip is confronted by the possibility of a pregnancy, a consequence of his relations with Sally, Athelny’s oldest daughter, who is yet just twenty years old. Philip prepares to marry her and take the partnership with Doctor South, but just before he proposes, Sally tells him that her fears were a false alarm. He suddenly finds himself free from the tethers that had originally scared him, and yet is oddly disappointed. And, finally, Philip sees something that he himself desires, not that he simply feels that he is required to do. He wants a wife, a family:

He had lived always in the future, and the present always, always had slipped through his fingers. His ideals? He thought of his desire to make a design, intricate and beautiful, out of the myriad, meaningless facts of life: had he not seen also that the simplest pattern, that in which a man was born, worked, married, had children, and died, was likewise the most perfect?

In this last leap of intellect, Philip realizes that life doesn’t create an aesthetic; rather, life is the aesthetic. Life is meaningless, and because it is such, you’re left free to pursue your own wants and desires. Nearing the end of my second reading of Of Human Bondage, my anticipation reached levels of salivation as I anxiously awaited the prize at the bottom of the Cracker Jack box, Philip’s final revelation. I remembered how freeing it felt to hear someone echo, for the first time, some hidden truth on reality that I was finally coming to realize by the end of my senior year: how essentially meaningless life is. But, retracing my steps through the early stages of Philip’s enlightenment, it didn’t ring as true as before; yes, life was meaningless, but there were certainly consequences. My inability to identify problems, especially where they had occurred before, led to my hellish Bostonian fall. Philip’s last twist of mental rhetoric unleashed the deep breath that I felt had been holding in over the course of this last autumn. Life may be essentially meaningless, but all is not fatalism. Life is simply one long act of manipulation, and if you can shape the given world to create a niche for yourself and your desires, then you are truly a king in a castle made strong by your own passions. When I first came across Of Human Bondage, I was also infatuated with the musical Pippin, another coming-of-age tale with a main character trying to find his niche in life, a yearning best seen in the early number “Corner of the Sky” (“So many men seem destined / To settle for something small. / But I won’t rest until I know I have it all…”). The original Broadway production ended on a very poignant note; Pippin, having just given up his dreams of becoming something extraordinary, is asked by his lover Catherine how he feels. He responds, “Trapped, but happy. Which isn’t too bad for the end of a musical comedy.” In a sense, we’re all trapped – by jobs, significant others, children, and any other responsibilities that shape our existence . And while Philip’s final revelation is a terrific denouement for Of Human Bondage, the idea that we’re entirely free to pursue the life we want doesn’t hold sway in the real world. What’s really needed is a good sense of self-awareness and an ability to take steps towards achieving what you desire. It’s what can keep you trudging forward during the dark days, when you’re eight hours from home without a penny in your pocket. In that sense, my past fall in Boston was a failure; every step forward (earning a job, finally receiving a loan to pay off school) was countered by two steps back, and I’m still trying to pay off some of my debts incurred during those four months. But it was simply one episode of a longer saga. Philip’s time at Lynn and Sedley’s alone was two years, making my fall in Boston seem like a furlough in comparison. And I had a family to fall back on, to support me, and with that support I’ve been able to gain acceptance to a local school, hopefully pursuing degrees in both acting and journalism. I’m even writing more than ever, having earned a freelance gig with a major newspaper. Yes, I’m trapped, and I may not be happy, but I’m living and moving forward. There’s no way to measure success when everyone defines it his or her own way; life’s true beauty is hidden subtly in the everyday grind and haul manifested in work and family. My final stay in Boston was marked with much angst and anxiety, and although my decision to leave was absolutely correct, I had lost some very necessary perspective facing the greatest challenge of my life thus far. I feel a palpable rush of self-pity as I look back at that fall and see myself missing bill payments, losing weight and feeling so utterly hopeless about my future. But, as surely Philip Carey himself would now observe, those are merely more intricate patterns in the tapestry, a few more stitches in the cloth. ____ Steve Brachmann is a freelance writer and actor from Buffalo, NY. Has had work published for Dissolver Magazine, Image Icon Entertainment, Northeastern’s Times New Roman and The Buffalo News. His personal blog can be found at http://scubasteve519.livejournal.com/.

2 Comments »

  • Lauren says:

    Hi Steve,
    I’ve had something of the same experience with this book.It’s my absolute favorite. I keep two copies. One hardback that I’ve scribbled in the margins, completely wasted the spine of and dog eared many pages in and a pristine Barnes and Noble copy that I lend to friends. well, really, anyone who I can get to read it. I don’t care who you are, this book will change your life. I think it’s one of those books that relates to everyone on a certain level. I think we’re all handicapped in some way, although it’s not as apparent as Philip’s club-foot. I can’t figure out why more people haven’t read this book. I actually stumbled across this page because I’m referencing the metaphor of the rug in a paper I’m writing. It really is a brilliant metaphor. Sometimes I imagine what my rug looks like, what I could make it. Anyways, great post about a great book. Shame it’s not so recognized.

    Lauren K.

  • Bill H. says:

    So rarely do I comment on websites that I cannot even recall the last time. It’s been years.

    That said, this article compelled me to say something. I’ll keep it simple: This is one of the most thoughtful, genuine, and insightful commentaries on Of Human Bondage that I’ve ever read.

    Well done, and thanks for posting these thoughts!

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