Larry Darrell's Guide to Growing Up
The Razor's Edge, Somerset Maugham's classic novel about spiritual enlightenment, turns sixty this year. It's a particularly relevant novel today, when there is so much talk about the Western world losing its religion. Published in 1944 and adapted to film twice, The Razor's Edge was well ahead of its time.
The novel tells the story of Larry Darrell, a young man who returns to America after World War I disillusioned and looking for answers to the deep spiritual questions. He turns down job offers from banks and stock companies, causes problems with his would-be wife, and goes to India in search of enlightenment.
What makes The Razor's Edge so compelling and relevant today, aside from Maugham's great prose, is that the spiritual hunger the story addresses is still present in America. In fact, in the digital and hyper-competitive 21st century that hunger has only grown more acute.
A recent book that has been popular in the media is Excellent Sheep: the Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life. Author William Deresiewicz argues that America is producing young generations of driven and successful students who nonetheless have no passion or soul. These millennials are nice, well-prepared, and driven to succeed. Deresiewicz: "From orientation to graduation, the message [to elite students] is implicit in every tone of voice and tilt of the head, every old-school tradition, every article in the student paper, every speech from the dean. The message is: You have arrived. Welcome to the club. And the corollary is equally clear: You deserve everything your presence here is going to enable you to get."
There's also a very clear imperative: for you to attain this pseudo-holy state, you must avoid risk-taking. A character like Larry Darrell from The Razor's Edge was considered scandalous and bizarre when the book was written in the 1940s, and would be considered equally odd by today's millennial elite. Here was a handsome young man with connections and a gorgeous girlfriend (played by the resplendent Gene Tierney in the film), and he turned it all down in order to "loaf."
Darrell's experience seeing death up close in World War I had changed him; he was now interested in the meaning of life. He seeks out manual labor with the lower classes, working in a coal mine in France. Then he studies with Benedictines in Germany, and finally arrives in India, where he has a spiritual awakening in the Himalayas. Ultimately Darrell returns to America, but will spend his timing doing manual labor -- so he "can keep the mind free while also accomplishing something." He has achieved that rarest of things: goodness.
Today's hardworking millennials don't abandon their classes and career goals to go seek enlightenment. They don't even ride bikes without helmets. What millennials are missing, what makes them a little vacant in soul, is any moment of genuine threat to their well-laid plans. Millennials live in absolute terror of any experience that threatens everything they (and their parents) have laid out. They have avoided those moments that call not just for course correction but a reevaluation of one's entire existence.
This is not merely a summer trip overseas, an alcoholic bender or a failed exam. It's a public embarrassment and firing from an important job. Completely losing belief in God. Dropping out of school not for a semester, but for years. Realizing that your parents are living not for themselves, but through you.
A moment confronting the abyss of total uncertainty is a crucial part of growing up. It forces a person to revaluate and, to use some clichéd self-empowerment lingo, to find their true self. That true self may be destined for a mortgage bank job, a wife and three kids in the suburbs. And that's great; the world couldn't run without bankers. But a person could also be called to write poetry in Borneo. The important thing is that for the soul to develop it must come to that moment where a person says: My God, I have just completely destroyed my future. Because after the panic subsides you feel the stirrings of something deeper: My God, now I can do anything. It's a form of waking up to what is truly real.
This was once a regular theme in the popular culture, particularly in film. Movies like The Graduate, The Paper Chase, Risky Business and even Animal House showed young people coming up against a moment where they had a chance to take a different path from the one laid our by parents and authority figures. It was an all-or-nothing proposition. The point isn't to go simply on instinct or "if it feels good, do it," which was the unfortunate philosophy the Baby Boomers culled from works like The Razor's Edge. It was to accept the difficulty and hard work of the truly alternate path. It's why the Indian guru in The Razor's Edge tells Larry that what Larry has done requires a great deal of courage -- and that he is anything but a "loaf."
America would be a bad place if it consisted of nothing but Larry Darrells. But it's a worse one for having none.