The Razor’s Edge

by Modaser Shah

Somerset Maugham’s well-known novel, The Razor’s Edge, is based on a Vedic dictum that goes something like this: “Verily, the path is like a razor’s edge.” Enlightenment lies at the very edge of the (internal) abyss. In Islamic lore, there is mention of a narrow bridge, puli-sirat, spanning hell, the abyss, which has to be crossed in order to get to heaven, the other shore. It is said that only the righteous reach the other end, the others tumbling off to a deserved end, or, perhaps, a deserved beginning. Again, there is the precariousness of the path and the difficulty of remaining delicately balanced on it.

These matters, complex yet simple, hard to swallow, much less digest, for the rational and cynical side of us, can only be expressed poetically, as in prose much gets lost and ridicule may not be far behind. No wonder then that the great Benedetto Croce (1925) said: “Poetry is the mother tongue of the human species.”

So we turn to the linguistic minimalist Beckett who said: “I can’t go on. I will go on” (in The Unnameable). The path, it seems, lies between “I can’t go on” and “I will go on;” between inaction or paralysis, and desperate, agitated action; between depression and mania.

St Francis has given voice to a similar polarity: “If I knew the world will end tomorrow, I will still plant this tree.” This is surrender (one sense of the word Islam) without passivity and fatalism—active inaction or mu-i.

On one side is the abyss of “I can’t go on ” and on the other that of “I will go on” and a precarious bridge, likened to a razor’s edge, the path, divides the two. Yet the two abysses are in the same human heart and not much separated from each other. In fact, it may be said, following Hegel’s dialectics, that each side which negates the other at the same time contains/needs the other.

Buddha, the Awakened One, is reported to have said that Dharma or the teaching, perhaps the didactic portion of religion, or in Sufi terms the Zaahir (Outside) as set against the Baatin (Inside), is like a life raft; once one gets to the other shore, it is to be discarded. Thinking dialectically, the two clash and yet contain each other. The path, it seems, unites them in a new synthesis. The new synthesis is a new thesis calling forth its antithesis, or contradiction, and so on, ad infinitum. That is why the struggle or the journey is the point; the constant clash of “I can’t go on” and “I will go on.”

(This brings to my mind the clash between the Appreciative and Efficient Self as discussed in Navid Zaidi’s “Existence and Non-existence” on this site).

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2 Responses to The Razor’s Edge

  1. sv says:

    This is my all time fav novel , also the author , maugham has based larry’s guru in this novel on sri ramana maharshi – the sage who communicated by silence and whose teachings were only 3 words – WHO AM I ? , Love this novel for Larry’s independent spirit , to remain to what is true , when everyone around him were chasing the gr8 american dream . Beacuse in today’s society there is athi line between what is real and not and we are in danger of being allowed to succumb to the judgement of a sick materialistic society

  2. sufiways says:

    Thank you for stopping by and for providing context about the novel that may not be familiar to a lot of people. Happy journey!

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