The other night, TCM was running “The Razor’s Edge,” the 1946 film based on W. Somerset Maugham’s novel about one man’s quest for spiritual enlightenment (and the women who love him).
I know there was a later version with Bill Murray and I know I watched it when I was doing a piece on him years ago, but I honestly have no memory of it. But the first — starring Tyrone Power as the seeker, Larry Darrell, and Gene Tierney and Anne Baxter as the women who love him — made an impression on me when I was young. Maybe it was because Power looked like my dad, when they were both young and in the Marines. Maybe it was the idea of the way one’s life can turn.
I started watching with the sense of satisfaction I get only from seeing old black-and-white movies on TV; I texted my wife (who was staying with a friend in San Francisco) and the two of them tuned in for a while, too.
“Paulette and I tried that movie,” she said the next day. “I said, ‘I can’t believe Sean is home watching this!’”
True, Power was not much of an actor, though attempts at portraying spiritual thirst on screen are mostly embarrassing. (See Keanu Reeves in “Little Buddha.”) And while Tierney, as the grasping socialite, and Baxter, as the fallen woman, are both good, the whole thing has a kind of hoary Hollywood cast — the phony Parisian sets, with extras in berets speaking bad French; the preposterous Shangri-La where Darrell meets a holy man (Cecil Humphreys, who looked about as Indian as Basil Rathbone).
But Maugham was ahead of the curve when he wrote his best-selling novel about a traumatized WWI veteran seeking the truth, and finding it in the East; Larry Darrell was a sort of progenitor of all the dharma bums to come. He copped the title, and the swami’s speech, from some lines in the Upanishads that Christopher Isherwood was said to have translated for him: “Rise, awaken, seek the wise and realize. The path is difficult to cross, like the sharpened edge of a razor …” Clearly the story had a great appeal from a generation coming back from another war; the search for meaning is timeless.
Coincidentally, I stumbled on another use of this metaphor in an old essay by the late Zen teacher Charlotte Joko Beck. “How do we bring our separated life together?” she asked “To walk the razor’s edge is to do that; we have once again to be what we basically are, which is seeing, touching, hearing, smelling; we have to experience whatever our life is right this second.” Beck wasn’t just talking about practice, the part where you sit on a cushion: she meant the rest of the day.
“All troublesome relationships at home or at work are born of the desire to stay separate,” she wrote. “By this strategy, we hope to be a person who really exists, who is important. When we walk the razor’s edge, we’re not important; we’re no-self, imbedded in life.”
I take a lot of comfort in that idea, the moment-to-moment aspect — the choice that always exists. Sometimes it’s as simple as the argument at home, the words you don’t say. Sometimes it’s consequences are more monumental: the actor who overdoses, or the son who survives. It can cut both ways, that razor.