Romance

At the end of Shakespeare’s romance called The Tempest, Prospero plans to retire to Milan, where “Every third thought shall be my grave.” I remember these words, from reading the play in school and college. I also have thoughts of my grave. Their frequency may increase as the years pass. However, for each of those thoughts, I seem to have more that are based on memories of youth and childhood.


While I was young enough, my mother would read to me from books we found in the public library. One of these was a novel of two castaway or runaway children. The girl explains to the boy that they will have romance, since, as she has learned somewhere, this just means adventure. I have enjoyed using the word that way since. Writing of my first winter visit to the Nesin Mathematics Village in 2016 (and I am looking forward to my third such visit, this winter of 2018), I said,

Within Turkey, even as the price of airplane tickets goes down, I prefer to travel by bus. I like to see the countryside, even at night. I still find romance, even in pulling up alongside other busses at a rest stop, and having a bowl of tomato soup in the cafeteria.

“Everyone needs a place to escape,” says a member of “a jumbled crew who share in common their distaste for the mainstream life in Turkey.” This is from Shawn Carrié, writing for Vice, in a fascinating article, “In the Face of Terror, Istanbul’s Underground Is Still Dancing.” For the jumbled crew in Istanbul, the place to escape is “a dancefloor so dark you can’t see how crowded it is, and a bass that rattles the oxygen molecules in your lungs.” I too escape through a dark place: a highway rest stop in the middle of the night, where many persons smoke, as they probably do on the dancefloor; but here they do it outside, and you can step away from them, for more oxygen, further into the darkness of the countryside, or else into the cafeteria, where you can have your bowl of tomato soup.

Romance. I find it in Ottoman terminology, reinforced concrete, and Led Zeppelin album covers. Somerset Maugham has a chapter called “Romance” in his collection of notes called On a Chinese Screen (1922). I had not read that chapter, or most of the rest of them, till recently. However, in The Razor’s Edge (1944), there is a passage I know well, describing a scene in Paris in the 1930s. Here Maugham seems to allude to his experience in China. This is in part (vii) of Chapter Six.

There was no more than a sprinkling of people in the café. The roisterers had long since departed. The sad creatures who make a business of love had gone to their sordid dwellings. Now and then a tired-looking man came in to have a glass of beer and a sandwich, or one, who seemed only half awake, for a cup of coffee. White-collar workers. One had been on a night shift and was going home to bed; the other, roused by the call of an alarm clock was on his unwilling way to the long day’s labour. Larry appeared as unconscious of the time as of the surroundings. I have found myself in the course of my life in many strange situations. More than once I have been within a hair’s breadth of death. More than once I have touched hands with romance and known it. I have ridden a pony through Central Asia along the road that Marco Polo took to reach the fabulous lands of Cathay; I have drunk a glass of Russian tea in a prim parlour in Petrograd while a soft-spoken little man in a black coat and striped trousers told me how he had assassinated a grand duke; I have sat in a drawing-room in Westminster and listened to the serene geniality of a piano trio of Haydn’s while the bombs were crashing without; but I do not think I have ever found myself in a stranger situation than when I sat on the red-plush seats of that garish restaurant for hour after hour while Larry talked of God and eternity, of the Absolute and the weary wheel of endless becoming.

This not only alludes to, but echoes, a passage from the “Romance” chapter (XXIV) of On a Chinese Screen:

In the course of my life I have been often in situations which, had I read of them, would have seemed to me sufficiently romantic; but it is only in retrospect, comparing them with my ideas of what was romantic, that I have seen them as at all out of the ordinary. It is only by an effort of the imagination, making myself as it were a spectator of myself acting a part, that I have caught anything of the precious quality in circumstances which in others would have seemed to me instinct with its fine flower. When I have danced with an actress whose fascination and whose genius made her the idol of my country, or wandered through the halls of some great house in which was gathered all that was distinguished by lineage or intellect that London could show, I have only recognized afterwards that here perhaps, though in somewhat Ouidaesque a fashion, was romance. In battle, when, myself in no great danger, I was able to watch events with a thrill of interest, I had not the phlegm to assume the part of a spectator. I have sailed through the night, under the full moon, to a coral island in the Pacific, and then the beauty and the wonder of the scene gave me a conscious happiness, but only later the exhilarating sense that romance and I had touched fingers. I heard the flutter of its wings when once, in the bedroom of a hotel in New York, I sat round a table with half a dozen others and made plans to restore an ancient kingdom whose wrongs have for a century inspired the poet and the patriot; but my chief feeling was a surprised amusement that through the hazards of war I found myself engaged in business so foreign to my bent. The authentic thrill of romance has seized me under circumstances which one would have thought far less romantic, and I remember that I knew it first one evening when I was playing cards in a cottage on the coast of Brittany. In the next room an old fisherman lay dying and the women of the house said that he would go out with the tide. Without a storm was raging and it seemed fit for the last moments of that aged warrior of the seas that his going should be accompanied by the wild cries of the wind as it hurled itself against the shuttered windows. The waves thundered upon the tortured rocks. I felt a sudden exultation, for I knew that here was romance.

Maugham knew he had found romance also, not in a bus alongside others at a rest stop in Anatolia, but in a rowboat moored beside half a dozen junks on the Yellow River. I do not drive myself in Turkey; Maugham did not row himself in China, but had five rowers and a steersman, and they were asleep on the other side of some matchboarding.

Then suddenly I had a feeling that here, facing me, touching me almost, was the romance I sought. It was a feeling like no other, just as specific as the thrill of art; but I could not for the life of me tell what it was that had given me just then that rare emotion.

When he seeks the source of the feeling, he cannot find it. Perhaps this is no surprise.

Alas, I was like a man who should tear a butterfly to pieces in order to discover in what its beauty lay. And yet, as Moses descending from Mount Sinai wore on his face a brightness from his converse with the God of Israel, my little cabin, my dish of charcoal, my lamp, even my camp bed, had still about them something of the thrill which for a moment was mine. I could not see them any more quite indifferently, because for a moment I had seen them magically.

The experience is presumably why Maugham in The Razor’s Edge writes not just of touching hands with romance, but knowing it. We all have feelings. Art is the work of coming to know them. It is real work. It is a kind of thinking. Thinking is good, and Alice Dreger has a good essay, “Take Back the Ivory Tower,” in the Chronicle of Higher Education for October 1, 2017, about the need for the academy as a place for thinking:

Democracy depends on having a public capable of thinking, not merely being. And the academy is the last organized place we have to teach millions of adults to doubt authority, to look things up, to weigh ideas and evidence, to argue in a nonviolent fashion, to do the hard work of changing their own minds. This is not work the government or religious institutions or the media is going to do. Democracy depends on a large public capable of at least occasionally being moved by principle and mind, not only tribe and gut, and a healthy academy functions as a model and fomenter of that attitude.

The academy is also the last place—besides a small handful of nonpartisan nonprofit organizations—where truly independent research can be conducted in a sustained fashion by large numbers of people…

If most of the article is behind a paywall, I reached the whole thing from the link in a tweet by Steven Pinker, embedded in a tweet by Timothy Garton Ash, whose talk in Istanbul last winter, on freedom of speech, I responded to in “Freedom to Listen.”

I said romance was adventure, though Maugham may have a more precise sense. Later in On a Chinese Screen, in Chapter XXXIV, “Mirage,” he describes an American who has lived in China for five years, working for British American Tobacco, a firm whose trucks I still see delivering cancer sticks in Istanbul today. The American known to Maugham “has no small talk. He hunts for topics of conversation and, racking his brain to no purpose, in desperation offers you a whisky and soda.” He does not like it when he has to travel within China on business.

For he is a great reader. He reads nothing but American magazines and the number of those he has sent to him by every mail is amazing. He never throws them away and there are piles of them all over the house. The city in which he lives is the gateway into China from Mongolia. There dwell the teeming Chinese, and through its gates pass constantly the Mongols with their caravans of camels; endless processions of carts, drawn by oxen, which have brought hides from the illimitable distances of Asia rumble noisily through its crowded streets. He is bored. It has never occurred to him that he lives a life in which the possibility of adventure is at his doors. He can only recognise it through the printed page; and it needs a story of derring-do in Texas or Nevada, of hairbreadth escape in the South Seas, to stir his blood.

Some persons do enjoy their travels, and they write about these. Maugham names his Chapter IV for such a person. The Rolling Stone also worked for B.A.T., but got bored. He took a job travelling about China selling patent medicines. Then he used his savings to travel for himself; four years later, when the money was gone, he returned to Beijing.

He set about looking for a job. The easiest way to earn money seemed to write, and the editor of one of the English papers in China offered to take a series of articles on his journey. I suppose his only difficulty was to choose from the fulness of his experience. He knew much which he was perhaps the only Englishman to know. He had seen all manner of things, quaint, impressive, terrible, amusing, and unexpected. He wrote twenty-four articles. I will not say that they were unreadable, for they showed a careful and a sympathetic observation; but he had seen everything at haphazard, as it were, and they were but the material of art. They were like the catalogue of the Army and Navy Stores, a mine to the imaginative man, but the foundation of literature rather than literature itself. He was the field naturalist who patiently collects an infinity of facts, but has no gift for generalisation: they remain facts that await the synthesis of minds more complicated than his. He collected neither plants nor beasts, but men. His collection was unrivalled, but his knowledge of it slender.

One may wonder whether the Rolling Stone is not Maugham himself. He says of On a Chinese Screen, “it is not a book, but the material for a book.” This is in the Preface of The Travel Books of W. Somerset Maugham (1955), my copy of which I bought in used-book shop in Ankara, though the inside front cover bears the sticker of W. H. Smith & Son, English & French Books, 248 Rue de Rivoli, Paris. If I call this blog Polytropy, after the adjective used for Odysseus the wanderer, I could have called it the Rolling Stone, except for the moss that this term has gathered.

Note. I have cut and pasted from Project Gutenberg the quotations of On a Chinese Screen and have put the whole text of the “Romance” chapter on a separate page, where I observe that Maugham has an unacknowledged source.

3 Comments

  1. Liz Barnet
    Posted October 9, 2017 at 12:17 am | Permalink | Reply

    David, I really appreciate all the writing and thinking you are doing. I’m not reading this often enough or well enough but will try. With this one.

  2. Aarianne A58
    Posted October 9, 2017 at 3:37 am | Permalink | Reply

    Loved reading this except for the hard to understand part ab out a guy who tears apart butterflies. Shudder

  3. Posted October 9, 2017 at 5:48 pm | Permalink | Reply

    Hi David,
    Very interesting take on romance, hard to define but yet recognizable. One of those you’ll know it when you see it. Glad to have found your blog, thanks for the link!

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