Sunday, November 9, 2008

The Judgment Seat

Starry Night Over the Rhone, Arles
Vincent van Gogh
1888

One of my favorite authors has always been W. Somerset Maugham. He was from a different era, but as with all classic writers, his work still holds up today, and many of his stories continue to be made into movies, such as "The Razor’s Edge" and "The Painted Veil".

Somerset Maugham understood the human condition almost more than any other writer. His stories were tales of individual frailties, transgressions and ultimately redemption. He believed we are all capable of making errors in our lives, and we are all capable of forgiveness, not only of other people, but of ourselves. When I was a teenager, I used to read my father's collection of Somerset Maugham short stories, and one of my favorites was a story called "The Judgment Seat". It left an impression on me. I had been raised in the Anglican Church, and our Minister, Reverend Horsefield, had put the fear of God into me. As a child I thought, "How can I possibly live up to God's expectations of me?" And then I read "The Judgment Seat" and it gave me a whole new understanding of God and His expectations of the human condition. I hope you enjoy the story as much as I do.

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They awaited their turn patiently, but patience was no new thing to them; they had practiced it, all three of them, with grim determination, for thirty years. Their lives had been a long preparation for this moment and they looked forward to the issue now, if not with self-confidence, for that on so awful an occasion would have been misplaced, at all events with hope and courage. They had taken the strait and narrow path when the flowery meads of sin stretched all too invitingly before them; with heads held high, though with breaking hearts, they had resisted temptation; and now, their arduous journey done, they expected their reward. There was no need for them to speak, since each knew the other’s thoughts, and they felt that in all three of them the same emotion of relief filled their bodiless souls with thanksgiving. With what anguish now would they have been wrung if they had yielded to the passion which then had seemed so early irresistible and what a madness it would have been if for a few short years of bliss they had sacrificed that Life Everlasting which with so bright a light at long last shone before them! They felt like men who with the skin of their teeth have escaped a sudden and violent death and touch their feet and hands and, scarce able to believe that they are still are still alive, look about them in amazement. They had done nothing with which they could reproach themselves and when presently their angels came and told them that the moment was come, they would advance, as they had passed through the world that was now so far behind, happily conscious that they had done their duty. They stood a little on one side, for the press was great. A terrible war was in progress and for years the soldiers of all nations, men in the full flush of their gallant youth, had marched in an interminable procession to the Judgment Seat; women and children too, their lives brought to a wretched end by violence or, more unhappily, by grief, disease and starvation; and there was in the courts of heaven not a little confusion.

It was on account of this war, too, that those three wan shivering ghosts stood in expectation of their doom. For John and Mary had been passengers on a ship which was sunk by the torpedo of a submarine; and Ruth, broken in health by the arduous work to which she had so nobly devoted herself, hearing of the death of the man whom she had loved with all her heart, sank beneath the blow and died. John, indeed, might have saved himself if he had not tried to save his wife; he had hated her; he had hated her to the depths of his soul for thirty years; but he had always done his duty by her and now, in the moment of dreadful peril, it never occurred to him that he could do otherwise.

At last their angels took them by the hand and led them to the Presence. For a little while the Eternal took not the slightest notice of them. If the truth must be told he was in a bad humour. A moment before there had come up for judgment a philosopher, deceased full of years and honours, who had told the Eternal to his face that he did not believe in him. It was not this that would have disturbed the serenity of the King of Kings, this could only have made him smile; but the philosopher, taking perhaps an unfair advantage of the regrettable happenings just then upon Earth, had asked him how, considering them dispassionately, it was possible to reconcile his All-Power with his All-Goodness.

“No one can deny the fact of Evil,” said the philosopher, sententiously. “Now, if God cannot prevent Evil he is not all-powerful, and if he can prevent it and will not, he is not all-good.”

This argument was of course not new to the Omniscient, but he had always refused to consider the matter; for the fact is, though he knew everything, he did not know the answer to this. Even God cannot make two and two five. But the philosopher, pressing his advantage, and, as philosophers often will, drawing from a reasonable premise an unjustifiable inference, the philosopher had finished with a statement that in the circumstances was surely preposterous. “I will not believe,” he said, “in a God who is not All-Powerful and All-Good.”

It was not then perhaps without relief that the Eternal turned his attention to the three
shades who stood humbly and yet hopefully before him. The quick; with so short a time to live, when they talk of themselves, talk too much; but the dead, with eternity before them, are so verbose that only angels could listen to them with civility. But this in brief is the story that these three recounted. John and Mary had been happily married for five years and till John net Ruth they loved each other, as married couples of the most part do, with sincere affection and mutual respect. Ruth was eighteen, ten years younger than he was, a charming, graceful animal, with a sudden and all-conquering loveliness; she was as healthy in mind as she was in body, and, eager for the natural happiness of life, was capable of achieving that greatness which is beauty of soul. John fell in love with her and she with him. But it was no ordinary passion that seized them; it was something so overwhelming that they felt as if the whole long history of the world signified only because it had led to the time and place that had brought them together. They loved as Daphnis and Chloe or as Paolo and Francesca. But after that first moment of ecstasy when each discovered the other’s love they were seized with dismay. They were decent people and they respected themselves, the beliefs in which they had been bred, and the society in which they lived. How could he betray an innocent girl, and what had she to do with a married man? Then they grew conscious that Mary was aware of their love. The confident affection with which she had regarded her husband was shaken; and there arose in her feelings of which she would never have thought herself capable, jealousy and the fear that he would desert her, anger because her possession of his heart was threatened and a strange hunger of the soul which was more painful than love. She felt that she would die if he left her; and yet she knew that if he loved it was because love had come to him, not because he had sought it. She did not blame him. She prayed for strength; she wept silent, bitter tears. John and Ruth saw her pine away before their eyes. The struggle was long and bitter. Sometimes their hearts failed them and they felt that they could not resist the passion that burned the marrow of their bones. They resisted. They wrestled with evil as Jacob wrestled with the angel of God and at last they conquered. With breaking hearts, but proud in their innocence, they parted. They offered up to God, as it were a sacrifice, their hopes of happiness, the joy of life and the beauty of the world.

Ruth had loved too passionately ever to love again and with a stony heart she turned to god and to good works. She was indefatigable. She tended the sick and assisted the poor. She founded orphanages and managed charitable institutions. And little by little her beauty which she cared for no longer left hr and her face grew as hard as her heart. Her religion was fierce and narrow, her very kindness was cruel because it was founded not on love but on reason; she became domineering, intolerant, and vindictive. And John, resigned, but sullen and angry, dragged himself along the weary years waiting for the release of death. Life lost its meaning to him; he had made his effort and in conquering was conquered; the only emotion that remained with him was the unceasing, secret hatred with which he looked upon his wife. He used her with kindness and consideration; he did everything that could be expected of a man who was a Christian and a gentleman. He did his duty. Mary, a good, faithful and (it must be confessed) exceptional wife, never thought to reproach her husband for the madness that had seized him; but all the same she could not forgive him for the sacrifice he had made for her sake. She grew acid and querulous. Though she hated herself for it, she could not refrain from saying the things that she knew would wound him. She would willingly have sacrificed her life for him, but she could not bear that he should enjoy a moment’s happiness when she was so wretched that a hundred times she had wished she was dead. Well, now she was and so were they; grey and drab had life been, but that was passed; they had not sinner and now their reward was at hand.

They finished and there was silence. There was silence in all the courts of heaven. Go to hell were the words that came to the Eternal’s lips, but he did not utter them, for they had a colloquial association that he rightly thought unfitting to the solemnity of the occasion. Nor indeed would such a decree have met the merits of the case. But his brows darkened. He asked himself if it was for this that he had made the rising sun shine on the boundless sea and the snow glitter on the mountain tops; was it for this that the brooks sang blithely as they hastened down the hillsides and the golden corn waved in the evening breeze?

“I sometimes think,” said the Eternal, “that the stars never shine more brightly than when reflected in the muddy waters of a wayside ditch.”

But the three shades stood before him and now that they had unfolded their unhappy story they could not but feel a certain satisfaction. It had been a bitter struggle, but they had done their duty. The Eternal blew lightly, he blew as a man might blow out a lighted match, and, behold! where the three poor souls had stood – was nothing. The Eternal had annihilated them.

“I have often wondered why men think I attach so much importance to sexual irregularity,” he said. “If they read my works more attentively they would see that I have always been sympathetic to that particular form of human frailty.”

Then he turned to the philosopher, who was still waiting for a reply to his remarks. “You cannot but allow,” said the eternal, “that on this occasion I have very happily combined my All-Power with my All-Goodness.”

12 comments:

Ruth D~ said...

Powerful writing, that. Thanks for putting it front and center.

And your artistic talent deserves to come front and center, too.

frizzy scissorhands said...

these character's seem deeply flawed, indicating to me that maugham understood the darkness of the human condition.

i rather like this story.

ivan@creativewriting.ca said...

I'd like to agree, but old Willie did dump his wife and disinherit his daughter.
But then Dickens was no angel either.
But Dickens was a genius, while today (is it because of deconstruction?) Maugham is held to be a mediocre writer.
(Of course, his critics and enemies have been sayight that sinvce about l936)
The work does last.

Jo said...

Ruth, I like the message in the story. It is powerful writing, isn't it? I like that we can see God's perspective on this people's misplaced piety.

Frizzy, yes, all of Maugham's characters were flawed, as are most people, and that was the beauty of his stories. His characters were human.

Ivan, I much prefer Maugham to Dickens, whose characters often seemed like comic book caricatures, rather than real people. Names like Sweedlepipe, Honeythunder, Bumble, Pumblechook, and M'Choakumchild are just too cartoonish for my taste. But, the point I am trying to make in this post is that people should not be afraid to be human, with all the faults we humans have.

KathyB. said...

Contemplation , are you trying to make me think ? You succeeded ! I have never knowingly read this author. Thank-you for a little education.

Since I have been away from blog-land I read several of your blogs. You seem to be thinking about some of the same things I have. With such a limited allotment of time we mortals have, there are definitely things we need to do, obligations to fulfill, but then there are the dreams and talents we have. Time to be creative Jo !

Your art is beautiful , and uniquely yours...well worth pursuing ! As the Nike commercial says, "Just Do It !"

Charles Gramlich said...

I'm kind of running this morning and don't have time to read the whole story but I'll check back later.

VioletSky said...

I've always enjoyed Somerset Maugham, though haven't read him in a long time. I have a whole shelf devoted to him, lightly coated with dust, which perhaps I will now disturb.

Jo said...

Kathy, Somerset Maugham was a wonderful writer. He and John Steinbeck are my two favorite authors, and they have similar characters. You should pick up some Somerset Maugham if you get a chance.

Charles, yes, it is a rather long post, unfortunately.

Violetsky, that's the thing with Maugham, isn't it? His stories never get old.

RiverPoet said...

Beautiful painting, incredible story. I love the way you select some of the richest tidbits from your favorite things and share them with us all. I think my son, the philosopher, would love this story.

Peace - D

Jo said...

Riverpoet, isn't this a wonderful story, and a wonderful philosophy? It has really formed my life.

Alexander said...

It's jolly nice to see Somerset Maugham's short story, complete and unabriged, in the Internet. I think 'The Judgement Seat' must be a unique in Maugham's oeuvre because, I think, it's the only time when he wrote something like science fiction, although mysterious phenomena were not foreign to him, either ('Lord Mountdrago' and 'P&0', for example). But Maugham's power has always been in his extraordinary characters - so alive and so human and so real - and of course his laconic and unmistakable style, as well as his amazing ability to tell a story in the best possible way.

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