The Gentleman in the Parlour by W. Somerset Maugham (1930)

Laughter is the only reality. (Chapter 9)

Maugham is very candid in his preface about his motives in writing this book. It was 1922 and he was an established and very successful author, of novels and also a series of smash-hit West End plays. He fancied a break from writing novels, had written one travel book (On a Chinese Screen) more or less by accident, worked up from notes on a journey and now, having seen how it was done, he fancied undertaking another journey but this time with the conscious aim of writing a carefully composed and crafted travel book.

The preface explains that, whereas the novel is necessarily a mongrel form, since dialogue, descriptions of scenery, moments of comedy or moments of tragedy, require the novelist to vary his style to be appropriate for each of these different moments, by contrast the travel book need contain no such varieties of tone.

Here prose may be cultivated for its own sake. You can manipulate your material so that the harmony you seek is plausible. Your style can flow like a broad, placid river and the reader is borne along on its bosom with security; he need fear no shoals, no adverse currents, rapids, or rock-strewn gorges.

The travel book can be an essay in style.

The journey

In Ceylon Maugham met a British government official who recommended he visit Keng Tung, in the remote Shan States in the north of Burma. So Maugham sailed to Rangoon, travelled on to Mandalay, where he set off by mule for the remote Keng Tung. After 26 days he arrived and recorded his impressions before carrying on to the Thai border, whence he travelled by car to Bangkok. Then by boat to Cambodia, a trek to the famous temple complex at Angkor Wat, another river trip to Saigon and then a coastal journey via Hue to Hanoi.

At this point the narrative ends, though Maugham went on to Hong Kong, crossed the Pacific, the United States, and the Atlantic, returning to London to resume his career as author and socialite.

Pause for reflection

The main thing about this book is that he waited until seven years after the trip to write it i.e. it wasn’t knocked out in the heat of the moment for money. Maugham gave himself seven years in which to shape and craft the narrative. Hence the way the preface emphasises style over impact and hence the book’s very leisurely, patrician prose. And also the fact, brought out in biographies and in Paul Theroux’s fascinating introduction, that the content of the book is highly manipulated. Not to put too fine a point on it, Maugham made stuff (particularly people) up, and by the same token, omitted a lot of important facts.

Most obviously, Maugham travelled with his long term partner, Frederick Haxton, and it was Haxton who made all the necessary arrangements, organised all travel and accommodation details, as well as approaching and befriending people of all classes throughout the journey, something Maugham was very bad at because of his stammer and his shyness. But in the book Haxton never appears, Maugham appears to have no white companion at all. On the contrary, the strong impression is given is that Maugham was an intrepid and solo traveller.

Meeting people

Throughout the book (and indeed throughout his short stories) the narrator describes the way he has a special skill at extracting confidences and anecdotes from the people he meets. Indeed there is a quotable paragraph which I’ve read quoted in other introductions and articles about Maugham, where he analyses the special skill he has in gaining people’s confidence and hearing their stories.

Often in some lonely post in the jungle or in a stiff, grand house, solitary in the midst of a teeming Chinese city, a man has told me stories about himself that I am sure he had never told to a living soul. I was a stray acquaintance whom he had never seen before and would never see again, a wanderer for a moment through this monotonous life, and some starved impulse led him to lay bare his soul. I have in this way learned more about men in a night (sitting over a siphon or two and a bottle of whiskey, the hostile, inexplicable world outside the radius of an acetylene lamp) than I could if I had known them for ten years. If you are interested in human nature it is one of the great pleasures of travel. (p.32)

Thus the narrative includes a number of stories confided in him by the people who he meets:

  • The story of Masterson, the decent white man who takes a native wife and has three pretty children but, when she asks him to formally marry her, can’t bring himself to; he wants to eventually retire in dignity to Cheltenham. And so she leaves him as Maugham finds him a few months later, desolate and abandoned.
  • The haunting episode with the Italian priest living in a hand-built mission in the remotest part of the Burmese jungle.
  • The Frenchman in the teak forest who bursts into tears over a couplet of Verlaine.
  • The florid cast of characters aboard the ship from Bangkok to Saigon, including a soulful Italian tenor, an ugly little French governor and his statuesque wife, and the Wilkins, the cheerful American owners of a travelling circus.
  • The lengthy encounter with a man named Grosely who approaches him at his hotel in Haiphong claiming to have known him at medical school in London back in the early 90s. Now he is raddled and gone to seed. He invites Maugham to his squalid rooms in the roughest part of the native quarter where he lives with a retired prostitute he’s married, and offers him a pipe of opium (which Maugham refuses) before telling him the strange and sad story of his life: to wit, he made a fortune working as a tide waiter in China, taking bribes from opium smugglers, all the time fantasising about returning to London. When, after 20 years, he finally returned to London with a fortune, he found it bigger, noisier, unfriendlier than he remembered, the women stand-offish, the men snobby. Eventually, he realised he preferred the East and headed back towards China but was overcome by fear that, now, his memories of China would prove equally as false. So he stopped off at Haiphong on a temporary basis, and said he’d complete the trip any day now. He’d been saying that for five years. Another of Maugham’s subtle grotesques.

It is a bit of a shock to learn that some of these stories appeared elsewhere, in magazines, as fictions. I also noticed several passages of ruminant meditation which appear in some of the short stories. For Maugham the borderline between fiction and fact was obviously pretty porous, as were the borders of his texts: if a passage worked, why not use it elsewhere? appears to have been his practice.

Also, once I had really soaked up his leisurely bookish approach to travelling, it began to dawn on me that Maugham is a collector of people. He relishes their peculiarities and absurdities, their sad love stories, their ridiculous passions.

Reading this book doesn’t shed much light on the factual background of the British Empire in the East (none, really); but it makes you realise that a lot of his short stories are like those glass display cases in which Victorian collectors kept stuffed specimens, of exotic birds and rare butterflies pinned to boards. Only Maugham’s stuffed exhibits are people.

Maugham himself describes how he has to sit through countless boring dinners and endless chat over whiskey and soda at the club, before the magic moment arrives and a person discloses themself, reveals the nugget, their essence, the one great story they have about their lost love or their great triumph or a ghoulish murder, which excites his imagination, which fuels him, which he can work up into one of his wonderful short stories.

Descriptions

I expected there to be lots of anecdotes about people but was surprised that there is quite so much description of landscape, not necessarily Maugham’s strongest point. Particularly on the first part of the trip, the 26 day mule trek through jungle, up into mountain, and across wide sluggish Burmese rivers, there are many passages of description worth stopping and savouring.

Then, the muleteers’ duties accomplished and the servants having unpacked my things, peace descended upon the scene, and the river, empty as though man had never adventured up its winding defiles, regained its dim remoteness. There was not a sound. The day waned and the peace of the water, the peace of the tree-clad hills, and the peace of the evening were three exquisite things. There is a moment just before sundown when the trees seem to detach themselves from the dark mass of the jungle and become individuals. Then you cannot see the wood for the trees. In the magic of the hour they seem to acquire a life of a new kind so that it is not hard to imagine that spirits inhabit them and with dusk they will have the power to change their places. You feel that at some uncertain moment some strange thing will happen to them and they will be wondrously transfigured. You hold your breath waiting for a marvel the thought of which stirs your heart with a kind of terrified eagerness. but the night falls; the moment has passed and once more the jungle takes them back. It takes them back as the world takes young people who, feeling in themselves the genius which is youth, hesitate for an instant on the brink of a great adventure of the spirit, and then engulfed by their surroundings sink back into the vast anonymity of mankind. The trees again become part of the wood; they are still and, if not lifeless, alive only with the sullen and stubborn life of the jungle. (Chapter 14)

Maughamese

Having pointed this out in reviews of his short stories I had vowed not to mention it in this review, but Maugham really does have a cranky way with the English language.

  • I took to the road once more. One day followed another with a monotony in which was nothing tedious. (Chapter 15)
  • I had with me a number of books that would have improved my mind and others, masterpieces of style, by the study of which I might have made progress in the learning of this difficult language in which we write. (Ch 15)
  • I had wandered so long through country almost uninhabited that I was dazzled by the variety and colour of the crowd. (Chapter 18) This is French word order, placing the adjective after the noun
  • There are perhaps a dozen monasteries in Keng Tung and their high roofs stand out when you look at the town from the little hill on which is the circuit-house. (Chapter 21) ‘on which is’ sounds like a German expression to me; it’s not natural English.

What’s so odd is that Maugham makes several explicit references to his struggle to write elegantly and yet so continually fails to do so. He was born and bred in France till the age of ten. French was his first language, and it was obviously a lifelong battle to shake off the influence of French word order, a battle he never won.

In fact the struggle to write clearly is so obviously a theme of the book and his seven-years’ labour on it that he devotes a paragraph to a typically candid and self-deprecatory account of his own style.

When I was young I took much trouble to acquire a style; I used to go to the British Museum and note down the names of rare jewels so that I might give my prose magnificence, and I used to go to the Zoo and observe the way an eagle looks or linger on a cab-rank to see how a horse champed so that I might on occasion use a nice metaphor; I made lists of unusual adjectives so that I might put them in unexpected places. But it was not a bit of good. I found I had no bent for anything of the kind; we do not write as we want but as we can, and though I have the greatest respect for those authors who are blessed with a happy gift of phrase I have long resigned myself to writing as plainly as I can. I have a very small vocabulary and I manage to make do with it, I am afraid, only because I see things with no great subtlety. I think perhaps I see them with a certain passion and it interests me to translate into words not the look of them, but the emotion they have given me. But I am content if I can put this down as briefly and baldly as if I were writing a telegram. (Chapter 37)

This is both true and not true. Maugham is obviously posing (to himself as well as to his readers) as a man of simple tastes and plain prose. And it is an accurate description of some of his prose. But not all of it. Throughout his texts the prose is continually troubled by efforts at fine writing, description and philosophical lucubrations. He may have believed this account when he wrote it – or he may be cannily offering it to the reader as an apology and a claim to our sympathy – but it is far from being the whole story of this man’s odd and lifelong struggle with the English language.

The most important thing about this paragraph is its positioning, in the middle of what turns out to be the longest descriptive passage in the book, a love letter to the wondrousness of the temple complex at Angkor Wat, which continues on to a lyrical paean to the sculpture and art of the ancient Khmers. Maugham’s claims to prosey simplicity are themselves just an element in his tricksiness. It’s part of his appeal.

A life of ease

The struggle Maugham so visibly has to write basic, clear English prose sheds ironic light on the claim in the preface that the book will be an ‘exercise in style’.

So much so that I think we do best to stop applying it to his style of language and apply it more accurately to his style of living. More than descriptions of jungle or temples, more than anecdotes about white men in remote imperial outposts, what the book radiates is Maugham’s love of ease and leisure. Travelling by river is calm and monotonous. Day follows day on the mule trek across the mountains, all merging into one. Arriving at the little government bungalows along the way, he immediately makes himself at home. Two pages are devoted to describing his cook (unsatisfactory, eventually fired). Every morning his loyal Gurkha servant brings freshly ground coffee. When he finally arrives at a town with modern facilities he is in clover.

It was pleasant to have nothing much to do. It was pleasant to get up when one felt inclined and to breakfast in pyjamas. It was pleasant to lounge through the morning with a book.

He makes a great point of not knowing anything. He doesn’t read any guidebooks or mug up on local history. He satirises that approach in the (fictional?) character of a Czech who, he claims, is up early and out to take notes on all the different Buddhist temples in pagan, and has made a life’s study of acquiring general knowledge. He is, by his own admission, ‘a mine of information’. Maugham mocks him. He prefers to skim across the surface of things, letting his imagination project stories, snatches of dialogue, really glorified whims and fancies, onto the surface of people, scenery, places and landscapes.

I travelled leisurely down Siam. (Chapter 26)

The key words are: leisurely, nonchalant, ease, peace, laze, loll, lie, lounge, bath, verandah, smoke. Wherever he finds himself, Maugham regularly takes out his pipe and has a calming, relaxing smoke. In the depths of the jungle after 26 days’ journey by mule, he fantasises of a hotel where he can toast his toes by a fireside and lounge in an easy chair with a comfortable book. Above all, Maugham conveys a sense of quite wonderful, bookish, rather frivolous ease and leisure.

To ride in a teak forest, so light, so graceful and airy, is to feel yourself a cavalier in an old romance. (Chapter 26)

I think it is this, this ability to be at home, relaxed, to find the lazy, lyrical sometimes whimsical aspect of any situation, which makes all of Maugham’s books such a pleasure to read. They are extremely relaxing.

Books and art

An indication of the extent to which the book is more an exercise in a certain nonchalant, unflappable style of travelling and a deliberate avoidance of facts and analyses in favour of charming impressions is the steady flow of references to Western art and books: Rembrandt, Titian, Michelangelo, El Greco and Velasquez, Monet and Manet, Veronese and Cimabue are just some of the painters knowledgeably referenced: and Wordsworth, Lamb and Hazlitt (the title of this book is a quote from Hazlitt’s essay about ‘going a journey’), Proust, Bradley the philosopher, Verlaine and La Fontaine, George Meredith, Walter Pater, John Ruskin, Euphues and Sir Thomas Browne are just some of the writers invoked and even quoted.

Thus he is able to write the splendidly contrived and humorous sentence:

The uneventful days followed one another like the rhymed couplet of a didactic poem. (Chapter 24)

A bit later, he writes:

The village street was bordered by tamarinds and they were like the sentences of Sir Thomas Browne, opulent, stately, and self-possessed. (Chapter 26)

Both of which expect of the reader a familiarity with a certain type of rather dusty old literature. This assumption of knowledge is part of the strategy of the prose: you could react badly to it, and dismiss Maugham as a pompous old bore; but I happen to have read my share of didactic rhyming poems and Sir Thomas Browne, so I not only smile in recognition of the reference, but also smile at the preposterousness of the way Maugham’s first thought, lazily sailing down a river in Burma or entering a dusty oriental town, is of very English literary references.

It is this – to us nowadays, maybe forced and pretentious – approach, which is part of what he means when he talks about ‘an exercise in style’.

The British Empire

Modern politically correct, post-colonial critics find tearing into Maugham’s dilettante attitude easy meat. Above all it’s easy to criticise him for not showing a flicker of interest in the government, economy, political situation or native peoples of the countries he passes through. Hopefully my review has made clear by now that that kind of thing is exactly what he was deliberately avoiding, not least because he knows he’s not very good at it. In his own day there was no shortage of left-wing critics (and an entire political party, the Labour Party) writing books and articles attacking the exploitative nature of the British Empire. Maugham knows he is not in the same business, he is in the entertainment business.

That said, right at the start of the book there is a very interesting page where he tackles the issue head-on. He imagines a future historian of the Decline and Fall of the British Empire reading his book and being appalled at the lack of interest it shows in the subject. But what’s interesting is what Maugham has this historian say about the British Empire between the wars, what – presumably – Maugham himself thought about the Empire — and this is that he found it to be ruled weakly and ineffectually.

It is the great paradox of the British Empire that it achieved its largest size between the wars and yet at the same moment was struck by paralysing doubt. Thus Maugham has his future historian lament that the British held their empire with ‘a nerveless hand’, that they held their office only through the force of guns yet tried to persuade the natives they were there on their own sufferance, they offered efficiency and benefits to people who didn’t want them; British power was tottering because the masters were ‘afraid to rule’, lacked confidence in themselves and so commanded no respect from the natives, the British tried to rule by persuasion rather than power, who were troubled by the feeling that they were ‘unfit to rule’.

Though only a page long, it is a fascinating and powerful indictment and goes a long way to explaining the sudden collapse of the Empire after the Second World War.

Soulful moments

In among the lazy descriptions of jungle and temple, tiffin and evening pipes, are some genuinely thoughtful moments. Not too thoughtful, mind – Maugham goes out of his way to explain that he is not a philosopher (although he likes reading a bit of philosophy every morning before breakfast is served). Nonetheless, a consistent attitude emerges, which is his admiration for simplicity and lack of pomposity.

He admires Buddhism. He admires its simplicity and takes some time to reimagine the circumstances of Prince Gautama’s life and decision to abandon everything. He comes across a tiny village in the remote Burman jungle and ponders that their way of life, handed down from generation to generation, is admirable, honest and pure. He greatly admires the Italian priest labouring in the jungle. He likes the good and the simple.

This rather basic philosophy is reinforced by lyrical descriptions of the peace and mystery of the jungle, and the equally beguiling atmosphere of some of the Buddhist temples. He encounters many of these and so there are many descriptions of the eerie, absorbent quality of the gold-leafed statues of Buddha, especially when the light of the setting sun sets them aglow. Here he is on a houseboat in Ayudha.

When I awoke in the night I felt a faint motion as the houseboat rocked a little and heard a little gurgle of water, like the ghost of an Eastern music travelling not through space but through time. It was worth while for that sensation of exquisite peace, for the richness of that stillness, to have endured all that sight-seeing.

The Gentleman in the Parlour illustration in Radio Times by C.W. Bacon (1950s)

The Gentleman in the Parlour illustration in the Radio Times by C.W. Bacon (1950s)


Related links

Somerset Maugham’s books

This is nowhere near a complete bibliography. Maugham also wrote countless articles and reviews, quite a few travel books, two books of reminiscence, as well as some 25 successful stage plays and editing numerous anthologies. This is a list of the novels, short story collections, and the five plays in the Pan Selected Plays volume.

1897 Liza of Lambeth
1898 The Making of a Saint (historical novel)
1899 Orientations (short story collection)
1901 The Hero
1902 Mrs Craddock
1904 The Merry-go-round
1906 The Bishop’s Apron
1908 The Explorer
1908 The Magician (horror novel)
1915 Of Human Bondage
1919 The Moon and Sixpence

1921 The Trembling of a Leaf: Little Stories of the South Sea Islands (short story collection)
1921 The Circle (play)
1922 On a Chinese Screen (travel book)
1923 Our Betters (play)
1925 The Painted Veil (novel)
1926 The Casuarina Tree: Six Stories
1927 The Constant Wife (play)
1928 Ashenden: Or the British Agent (short story collection)
1929 The Sacred Flame (play)

1930 Cakes and Ale: or, the Skeleton in the Cupboard
1930 The Gentleman in the Parlour: A Record of a Journey From Rangoon to Haiphong
1931 Six Stories Written in the First Person Singular (short story collection)
1932 The Narrow Corner
1933 Ah King (short story collection)
1933 Sheppey (play)
1935 Don Fernando (travel book)
1936 Cosmopolitans (29 x two-page-long short stories)
1937 Theatre (romantic novel)
1938 The Summing Up (autobiography)
1939 Christmas Holiday (novel)

1940 The Mixture as Before (short story collection)
1941 Up at the Villa (crime novella)
1942 The Hour Before the Dawn (novel)
1944 The Razor’s Edge (novel)
1946 Then and Now (historical novel)
1947 Creatures of Circumstance (short story collection)
1948 Catalina (historical novel)
1948 Quartet (portmanteau film using four short stories –The Facts of Life, The Alien Corn, The Kite and The Colonel’s Lady)
1949 A Writer’s Notebook

1950 Trio (film follow-up to Quartet, featuring The Verger, Mr. Know-All and Sanatorium)
1951 The Complete Short Stories in three volumes
1952 Encore (film follow-up to Quartet and Trio featuring The Ant and the GrasshopperWinter Cruise and Gigolo and Gigolette)

1963 Collected short stories volume one (30 stories: Rain, The Fall of Edward Barnard, Honolulu, The Luncheon, The Ant and the Grasshopper, Home, The Pool, Mackintosh, Appearance and Reality, The Three Fat Women of Antibes, The Facts of Life, Gigolo and Gigolette, The Happy Couple, The Voice of the Turtle, The Lion’s Skin, The Unconquered, The Escape, The Judgement Seat, Mr. Know-All, The Happy Man, The Romantic Young Lady, The Point of Honour, The Poet, The Mother, A Man from Glasgow, Before the Party, Louise, The Promise, A String of Beads, The Yellow Streak)
1963 Collected short stories volume two (24 stories: The Vessel of Wrath, The Force of Circumstance, Flotsam and Jetsam, The Alien Corn, The Creative Impulse, The Man with the Scar, Virtue, The Closed Shop, The Bum, The Dream, The Treasure, The Colonel’s Lady, Lord Mountdrago, The Social Sense, The Verger, In A Strange Land, The Taipan, The Consul, A Friend in Need, The Round Dozen, The Human Element, Jane, Footprints in the Jungle, The Door of Opportunity)
1963 Collected short stories volume three (17 stories: A Domiciliary Visit, Miss King, The Hairless Mexican, The Dark Woman, The Greek, A Trip to Paris, Giulia Lazzari, The Traitor, Gustav, His Excellency, Behind the Scenes, Mr Harrington’s Washing, A Chance Acquaintance, Love and Russian Literature, Sanatorium)
1963 Collected short stories volume four (30 stories: The Book-Bag, French Joe, German Harry, The Four Dutchmen, The Back Of Beyond, P. & O., Episode, The Kite, A Woman Of Fifty, Mayhew, The Lotus Eater, Salvatore, The Wash-Tub, A Man With A Conscience, An Official Position, Winter Cruise, Mabel, Masterson, Princess September, A Marriage Of Convenience, Mirage, The Letter, The Outstation, The Portrait Of A Gentleman, Raw Material, Straight Flush, The End Of The Flight, A Casual Affair, Red, Neil Macadam)

2009 The Secret Lives of Somerset Maugham by Selina Hastings

Living with gods @ the British Museum

There are two major exhibition spaces in the British Museum, the big Sainsbury Gallery at the back of the main court where they hold blockbuster shows like The Vikings or The Celts; and the more intimate semi-circular space up the stairs on the first floor of the central rotunda.

The setting

This latter location is where Living with gods: peoples, places and worlds beyond is currently showing.

The space is divided into ‘rooms’ or sections by translucent white linen curtains, on which the shadows of exhibits and visitors are cast. At floor level hidden lights project shimmering patterns onto the wall. Low-key ambient noises – strange rustlings, breathings, the rattling of unknown instruments – fill the air.

All this sets the scene and creates a mood, because this is an exhibition not of religious beliefs, but of religious objects, designed to tell the story of the relationship between human beings and their gods, or – more abstractly – their sense of the supernatural, through rare and precious religious artefacts from around the world.

Terror mask Pende, Republic of Congo, 20th century This mask is worn to frighten away women and nosy pople from initiation ceremonies for yound men. © Religionskundliche Sammlung der Universität Marburg, Germany

Terror mask Pende, Republic of Congo (20th century) This mask is worn to frighten away women and nosy people from initiation ceremonies for young men © Religionskundliche Sammlung der Universität Marburg, Germany

Themes

The objects are grouped by ‘theme’, namely:

  • Light, water, fire
  • Sensing other worlds
  • Sacred places and spaces
  • Prayer
  • Festivals
  • The cycle of life
  • Sacrifice
  • Coexistence

There are brief wall labels introducing each theme. Personally, I found these rather weak and obvious but then it’s a tricky task to summarise humanity’s entire history and relationship with, say, Prayer, in just four sentences.

Very often these texts are forced to state pretty empty truisms. One tells us that ‘Water is essential to life, but also brings chaos and death’. OK.

Another that ‘Religions shape the way people perceive the world by engaging all their senses.’ Alright. Fine as far as they go, but not really that illuminating.

Wonder toad China © Religionskundliche Sammlung der Universität Marburg, Germany

Wonder toad from China © Religionskundliche Sammlung der Universität Marburg, Germany

Individual information

The labels of individual exhibits are more specific and so more interesting. But here again, because artefacts from different cultures, geographical locations, religions and periods are placed next to each other, it is difficult, if not impossible, to get any real sense of context.

It may well be that:

Seeing out the old year in Tibet requires a purifying dance or cham. These lively masked and costumed dances are performed by Buddhist monks to rid the world of evil and bring in compassion.

Or that:

On 31 October every year, Mexicans remember the dead by staying at the graves of loved ones through the night. Theatrical processions symbolise fears and fantasies of the world of the dead. Judas, who denounced Christ to the Roman authorities, is displayed as a devil. Judas figures are also paraded and exploded on Easter Saturday.

But by the time you’re reading the tenth or fifteenth such snippet of information, it’s gotten quite hard to contain or process all this information. The whole world of religious artefacts for all known human religions is, well… a big subject.

Judas-devil figure, Mexico City © The Trustees of the British Museum

Judas-devil figure, Mexico City © The Trustees of the British Museum

So the weaknesses of the exhibition are its lack:

  • of intellectual depth – none of the room labels tell you anything you didn’t already know about the importance of light or water in religious belief
  • and of conceptual coherence – just giving each section a ‘theme’ and a few explanatory sentences isn’t, in the end, enough

Best objects

On the plus side, Living with gods is a rich collection of fascinating, evocative and sometimes very beautiful objects from all round the world. Because they’re so varied – from prayer mats to medieval reliquaries, from the tunics which Muslim pilgrims to Mecca wear to Inuit figures made of fur, from a statue of Buddha to a wooden model of a Hindu chariot – there’s something for every taste.

I had two favourite moments. One was the display case of African masks. I love African tribal art, it has a finish, a completeness, and a tremendous pagan primitive power, combined with high skill at metal working, which I find thrilling.

Installation view of Living with gods showing African masks (left) and the Mexican Judas figure (right)

Installation view of Living with gods showing African masks (left) and the Mexican Judas figure (right) In the background is a painted model of a Hindu temple vehicle.

The other was a modern piece by Syrian-born artist Issam Kourbaj, called Dark Water, Burning World, a set of model boats made out of refashioned bicycle mudguards, filled with burnt-out matches, representing the refugee crisis. How simple. How elegant. How poignant. How effective.

Dark Water, Burning World by Issam Kourbaj

Dark Water, Burning World by Issam Kourbaj

I don’t quite understand how this latter is a religious artefact. It strikes me as being probably more a work of art than a religious object.

The show as a whole goes heavy on artefacts from the obvious world religions – Islam, Christianity, Judaism, Hinduism, Daoism, Shintoism – as well as the ancient beliefs of the Persians, Assyrians and so on, plus sacred objects produced by non-literate tribal peoples such as the Yupik of Alaska or Siberian tribes. It is nothing if not global and all-encompassing.

Shiva Nataraja Chennai, India (1800-1900) As Nataraja, Hindu deity Shiva performs a perpetual dance of creation and destruction. © Religionskundliche Sammlung der Universität Marburg, Germany

Shiva Nataraja Chennai, India (1800-1900) As Nataraja, Hindu deity Shiva performs a perpetual dance of creation and destruction. © Religionskundliche Sammlung der Universität Marburg, Germany

Static

Although the exhibition claims to ‘explore the practice and expression of religious beliefs in the lives of individuals and communities around the world and through time’, it doesn’t.

Most religions are expressed by actions and rituals, dances, prayers, blessings, festivals, processions and so on. A moment’s reflection would suggest that the best way to convey this – in fact the only way to really convey these events and activities – would be through a series of films or videos.

Downstairs in the African galleries of the British Museum there are, for example, videos of tribal masks being worn by witch doctors and shamen performing dances, exorcisms and so on, which give a vivid (and terrifying) sense of how the head dresses, masks and implements are meant to be used in religious rituals, how they’re still being used to this day.

There is none of that here. Nothing moves. No words are spoken, in blessing or benediction. It is a gallimaufrey of static artefacts – all interesting, some very beautiful – but all hermetically sealed in their display cases. I found the lack of movement of any kind a little… antiseptic. Dry.

Model of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre Bethlehem, Palestine, 1600–1700 The Church of the Holy Sepulchre is one of the holiest places of Christianity and attracts many pilgrims. Souvenir models of the church are bought and taken all over the world. © The Trustees of the British Museum

Model of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre Bethlehem, Palestine (1600–1700) The Church of the Holy Sepulchre is one of the holiest places of Christianity and attracts many pilgrims. Souvenir models of the church are bought and taken all over the world. © The Trustees of the British Museum

BBC radio series

The exhibition was planned to coincide with a series of 30 15-minute radio programmes made by BBC Radio 4 and presented by the former Director of the British Museum, Neil MacGregor.

MacGregor scored a massive hit with his wonderful radio series, A History of the World in 100 Objects, broadcast in 2010. The 30 programmes in the Living with the gods series were broadcast in the autumn of 2017. Quite probably the best thing to do would have been to listen to the series and then come to look at the objects he mentioned. Or to have downloaded the programmes to a phone or Ipod and listened to them as you studied each object.

You can still listen to them free on the BBC website.

MacGregor is a star because he is so intelligent. Without any tricks or gimmicks he gets straight down to business, describing and explaining each of the objects and confidently placing them in the context of their times and places, within their systems of belief, and in the wider context of the development of the human mind and imagination. Just by listening to him you can feel yourself getting smarter.

I recommend episode 4, Here comes the sun, as one of the most awe-inspiring.

The radio programmes score over the actual exhibition because, at fifteen minutes per theme, there are many more words available in which to contextualise, explain and ponder meanings and implications, than the two or three sentences which is all the space the exhibition labels can provide.

The individual fire-related items are fairly interesting to look at in the exhibition. But MacGregor can weave an entire narrative together which links the perpetual fire in the Temple of Vesta in Rome, the worship of Ahura-Mazda in Sassanian Persia, the great Parsi fire temple in Udvada, India, and the Flame of the Nation which burns beneath the Arc de Triomphe in Paris.

His words bring to life exhibits which I found remained stubbornly lifeless in this hushed and sterile environment.

Religious belief as tame anthropology, drained of threat

Above all I bridled a little at the touchy-feely, high mindedness of the show, with its tone of hushed reverence and for its equation of all religious into the same category of cute Antiques Roadshow curiosities.

The commentary goes long on human beings’ capacity for ‘symbolising our thoughts in stories and images’, on our capacity for ‘love and sorrow’, on how ‘powerful, mystical ideas govern personal lives as well as defining cultural identities and social bonds’, and so on.

The commentary wistfully wonders whether human beings, rather than being labelled Homo sapiens shouldn’t be recategorised as Homo religiosus. Here as at numerous points in the commentary, I think you are meant to heave a sensitive sigh. It all felt a bit like a creative writing workshop where everyone is respecting everyone else’s sensibilities.

None of this is exactly untrue but I felt it overlooks the way that, insofar as religious beliefs have been intrinsic to specific cultures and societies over the millennia, they have also been inextricably linked with power and conquest.

To put it simply:

  • human history has included a shocking number of religious wars and crusades
  • religious belief and practice in most places have reinforced hierarchies of control and power

Rather than Homo religiosus, an unillusioned knowledge of human history suggests that, if man is anything, he is Homo interfector.

There is ample evidence that religion provides a way for believers to control and manage their fear and anxiety of powers completely beyond their control, the primal events of birth and death, natural disasters, the rotation of the seasons, the vital necessity of animals to hunt and kill and crops to grow and eat.

Central to any psychological study of religion is the way it provides comfort against the terror of death, with its various promises of a happy afterlife; and also the role it plays in defining and policing our sexual drives. Finding answers to the imponderable problems of sex and death have been time-honoured functions of religious belief.

On a social level, religion hasn’t only been a way to control our fears and emotions – it also has a long track record as a means to channel internal emotions into externalised aggression. You can’t have a history of Christianity without taking into account the early internecine violence between sects and heretics, which broke out anew with the 150 years of Religious War following the Reformation; without taking into account its violent conquests of pagan Europe which only ground to a halt in the 13th century or recognising the crusades to the Holy Land, or admitting to the anti-Semitism which is built deep into Christianity’s DNA. For every Saint Francis who wrote songs to the birds there is a man like Cistercian abbot Arnaud Amalric who told his troops to massacre the entire population of Béziers in 1209, claiming that God would sort out the good from the bad. ‘Kill them all. God will know his own.’

The history of Islam  may well be a history of religious sages and philosophers, but it is also a history of military conquest. The Aztecs and the Incas practiced really horrifying human sacrifices. As did the Celts And bloodily so on.

My point is summarised by the great English poet, Geoffrey Hill, who wrote back in 1953:

By blood we live, the hot, the cold
To ravage and redeem the world:
There is no bloodless myth will hold.

(Genesis by Geoffrey Hill)

‘There is no bloodless myth will hold’.

Christianity is represented here by processional crosses and rosary beads and a beautiful golden prayer book. The other religions are represented by similarly well-crafted and beautiful objects.

But my point is that Christianity is based on the story of a man who was tortured to death to please an angry God. Blood drips from his pierced hands and feet. The early theologian Tertullian wrote, ‘The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church.’ Shiah Muslims flagellate themselves every Muḥarram (I watched them doing it in the mountains of Pakistan. The hotel owner told me to stay indoors in case one of the inflamed believers attacked me.) As I write some 600,000 Rohingya Muslims have been forced from their homes by Buddhist populations.

My point is that religion isn’t all uplifting sentiments and beautiful works of art.

Religion does not show us what we all share in common: that is a pious liberal wish. Much more often it is used to define and police difference, between genders, castes and races.

Religion is just as much about conquest and massacre. And I’m not particularly knocking religion; I’m saying that human beings are as much about massacre and murder as they are about poetry and painting. And that poetry, painting and exhibitions like this which lose sight of the intrinsic violence, the state sponsored pogroms and the religious massacres which are a key part of human history give a misleading – a deceptively gentle and reassuring – view of the world.

Tibetan New Year dance mask Tibet © Religionskundliche Sammlung der Universität Marburg, Germany

Tibetan New Year dance mask © Religionskundliche Sammlung der Universität Marburg, Germany

I’m one of the few people I know who has read the entire Bible. Certain themes recur but not the kind of highbrow sentiments you might hope for. I was struck by the number of time it is written in both the Old Testament and the New Testament that:

Fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom (Proverbs 9:10)

There are many very beautiful and very interesting objects in this exhibition but I felt that they were presented in an atmosphere of bloodless, New Age, multicultural spirituality. Put bluntly: there wasn’t enough fear and blood.

Some videos

Promotional video

Exhibition tour


Related links

Reviews of other British Museum shows

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