The Razor's Edge

This page written circa 22 August, 2008.

The Razor's Edge is definitely in my top ten, but not through cinematic quality. The 1946 version rates 7.5 on IMDb and the Murray version 6.1, but I like the latter much more. The original may be more faithfull to the Maugham story, but the spirit is true and shining in the Murray version. The early version made some changes, for example it is Larry who confronts Isobel about Sophie not Maugham in the 1946 and I like that. However the 1946 version is stilted and less credible than the 1984, the way films were then. I think we just got better at films. The enlightenment is handled better in the Murray version, as is Elliot's death scene, and the scenery is not Hollywood cardboard cutouts. But I digress....

I like this film because it hovers about one of my favourite subjects: Knowing one's self, finding happiness, and the tradeoffs in life between admirable and personally-beneficial traits. Larry, the hero of the piece, is always working to stay on the ball. There's no "enlightenment at last, thank goodness I can go home and relax now". In the Maugham story Larry is said to continue afterwards to live as he does throughout the action; this is true for Murray's Larry even though he inherits Elliot's wealth (I like this touch better than Isobel getting it!). Enlightenment and so happiness involves not an understanding but an ongoing process, a life arduous and virtuous for Larry.

Kay subscribes to the theory that happiness comes from helping people. This is an old idea---from Aristotle?---and one still under debate according to New Scientist. It may well be quite correct. I am not sure that it is the sole source for all people.

My formula for happiness is not as single as this. For me it is a mixture of this Aristotelian social-service, plus some Buddhist happiness-through-eradication-of-desire, and a goodly dose of self-knowledge chielfy used to identify pasttimes, possessions and positions that bring me warmth and contentment (and conversely those that aggravate or sadden me). My razor-edge path is then to be helpful when I can, to identify and pursue the pasttimes that bring me joy, to own or be near the things that bring pleasure, to do what I like to do, and to avoid too much exposure to things I might covet but could not have.

I have a curious example of this self-knowledge: I probably derive as much pleasure as the next man from a beautiful natural view, and the isle of pines to which Kay and I wake up brings delight, but I know that I am equally enchanted by an overview of high-density buildings. I share the excitement portrayed in Mary Poppins at the sight of the rooftops of London, or the myriad houses and shops of Newtown. I would as happily walk King Street as the Tongariro Crossing. I also know that I derive great satisfaction from creating things. I build train sets not because I like playing trains, but because I like building things, and moving models, real trains, and the challenge of bringing high technology to toys all charm me, just like the rooftops.

It is said that the best test of a person's sense of humour comes when they are told that they do not have one. Surely the best test of one's self-knowledge comes when one retires or otherwise finds life suddenly emptied. With what, and how happily, do you refill it? These days I do more and more retirement-watching. I do not want to slip off the razor's edge in the last stretch.

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