Of human bondage, William Somerset Maugham, 1915


“Of human bondage” is first and foremost a book about jouissance, jouissance in the Lacanian sense. How it shapes human nature, but is seldom spoken about or discussed in any great work of philosophy. How it takes over one’s life, or threatens to. How you can’t fight it, not by any means of will or reason. But how you learn to do with it, with time and with damage, but with perspective nevertheless.

of human bondage

  • p. 127-128: “It is an illusion that youth is happy, an illusion of those who have lost it; but the young know they are wretched, for they are full of the ruthless ideals which have been instilled into them, and each time they come in contact with the real they are bruised and wounded. It looks as if they were victims of a conspiracy, for the books they read, ideal by the necessity of selection, and the conversation of their elders, who look back upon the past through a rosy haze of forgetfulness, prepare them for an unreal life. They must discover for themselves that all they have read and all hey have been told are lies, lies, lies (…). The strange thing is that each one who has gone through that bitter disillusionment adds to it in his turn, unconsciously, by the power within him which is stronger than himself.”
  • p. 228: “The illusion which man has that his will is free is so deeply rooted that I am ready to accept it. I act as though I were a free agent. But when an action is performed it is clear that all forces of the universe from all eternity conspired to cause it, and nothing I could do  could have prevented it. It was inevitable. If it was good I can claim no merit; if it was bad I can accept no censure.”

voir Freud à propos du bonheur “Tout l’ordre de l’univers si oppose” (Malaise dans la civilisation)

Freud (1929: 20) dans Malaise dans la Civilisation[1]: « L’univers entier – le macrocosme aussi bien que le microcosme – cherche querelle à son programme [celui du principe du plaisir]. Celui-ci est absolument irréalisable; tout l’ordre de l’univers s’y oppose; on serait tenté de dire qu’il n’est point entré dans le plan de la « création » que l’homme soit heureux. ».

[1] Freud, S. (1929/1970). Malaise dans la Civilisation. traduction de Ch. et I. Odier, Revue Française de Psychanalyse, Tome XXXIV, PUF : 9-80.

"As we see, it is simply the pleasure-principle which draws up the programme of life’’s purpose. This
principle dominates the operation of the mental apparatus from the very beginning; there can be no doubt
about its efficiency, and yet its programme is in conflict with the whole world, with the macrocosm as much
as with the microcosm. It simply cannot be put into execution, the whole constitution of things runs counter
to it; one might say the intention that man should be happy is not included in the scheme of Creation. What
is called happiness in its narrowest sense comes from the satisfaction——most often instantaneous——of pent-up
needs which have reached great intensity, and by its very nature can only be a transitory experience. When
any condition desired by the pleasure-principle is protracted, it results in a feeling only of mild comfort; we
are so constituted that we can only intensely enjoy contrasts, much less intensely states in themselves"

Freud, S.(1929/2000-2005). Civilization and its discontents, Chrysoma Associates Limited.
  • p. 245:”(…) he felt himself a fool not to have seen she was attractive. He thought he detected in her a touch of contempt for him, because he had not had the sense to see she was there (…)”
  •  p. 261:”They danced furiously. They danced round the room, slowly, talking very little, with all their attention given to the dance. The room was hot, and their faces shone with sweat. It seemed to Philip that they had throw off the guard which people wear on their expression, the homage to convention, and he saw them now as they really were, some were foxy and some were wolflike; and other had the long, foolish face of sheep. Their skins were sallow from the unhealthy life they led and the poor food they ate. Their  features were blunted by mean interests, and their little eyes were shifty and cunning. There was nothing of nobility in their bearing, and you felt that for all of them life was a long succession of petty concerns and sordid thoughts. The air was heavy with the musty smell of humanity. But they danced furiously as though impelled by some strange power within them, and it seemed to Philip that they were driven forward by a rage for enjoyment. They were seeking desperately to escape from a world of horror. The desire for pleasure which Cronshaw said was the only motive of human action urged them blindly on, and the very vehemence of the desire seemed to rob it of all pleasure. They were hurried by a great wind, helplessly, they knew not why and they know not whither. Fate seemed to tower above them, and they danced as though everlasting darkness were beneath their feet. Their silence was vaguely alarming. It was as if life terrified them and robbed them of power of speech so that the shriek which was in their hearts died at their throats. Their eyes were haggard and grim; and notwithstanding the beastly lust that disfigured them, and the meanness of their faces, and the cruelty, notwithstanding the stupidness which was worst of all, the anguish of those fixed eyes made all that crowd terrible and pathetic.”
  •  p. 265: “It seemed to Philip […] that in the true painters, writers, musicians there was a power which drove them to such complete absorption in their work as to make it inevitable for them to subordinate life to art. Succumbing to an influence they never realized, they were merely dupes of the instinct that possessed them, and life slipped through their fingers unlived.”
  •  p. 306: “He had thought of love as a rapture which seized one so that all the world seemed spring-like, he had looked forward to an ecstatic happiness; but this was not happiness; it was a hunger of the soul, it was painful yearning, it was a bitter anguish, he had never known before”
  •  p. 314: “He could not tell why he loved her. He had read of the idealization that takes place in love, but he saw her exactly as she was. She was not amusing or clever, her mind was common; she had a vulgar shrewdness. […] Philip laughed savagely as he thought of her gentility […] she could not bear a coarse word […] and she scented indecency everywhere […] she thought it slightly indelicate to blow her nose and did it in a deprecating way. She was dreadfully anemic and suffered from the dyspepsia which accompanied that ailing. Philip was repelled by her flat breast and narrow hips, and he hated the vulgar way in which she did her hair. He loathed and despised himself for loving her. The fact remained that he was helpless. He felt just as he had felt sometimes in the hands of a bigger boy at school. He had struggled against the superior strength till his own strength was gone, and he was rendered quite powerless – he remembered the peculiar languor he had felt in his limbs, almost as though he were paralysed – so that he could not help himself at all. He might have been dead. He felt just that same weakness now. He loved the woman so that he knew he had never loved before. He did not mind her faults of person or of character, he thought he loved them too: at all events they meant nothing to him. It did no seem himself that was concerned; he felt that he had been seized by some strange force that moved him against his will, contrary to his interests; and because he had a passion for freedom he hated the chains which bound him. He laughed at himself when he thought how often he had longed to experience the overwhelming passion. He cursed himself because he had given way to it.[…] The whole thing was his own fault. Except for his ridiculous vanity he would never have troubled himself with that ill-mannered slut.”
  •  p. 316-317: (as he is trying to take distance from his humiliating love for Mildred) “One thing that struck him was how little under those circumstances it mattered what one thought; the system of personal philosophy, which had given him great satisfaction to devise, had not served him. He was puzzled by this. (…) His instinct was not to go near the hospital for a week, when the affair would be no more thought of, but, because he hated so much to go just then, he went: he wanted to inflict suffering upon himself. He forgot for the moment his maxim of life to follow his inclinations with due regard for the policeman round the corner; or, if he acted in accordance with it, there must have been some strange morbidity in his nature which made him take a grim pleasure in self-torture.”
  •  p. 328: “It’s not much fun to be in love with a girl who has no imagination and no sense of humor,’ he thought, as he listened [to her].
  •  p. 330: “Though he yearned for Mildred so madly he despised her. He thought to himself that there could be no greater torture in the world than at the same time to love and to contemn.”
  •  p. 332: “He foresaw what Mildred, with her genteel ideas and her mean mind, would become: it was impossible for him to marry her. But he decided only with his reason; he felt that he must have her whatever happened; and if he could not get her without marrying her he would do that; the future could look after itself. It might end in disaster; he did not care. When he got hold of an idea it obsessed him, he could think of nothing else, and he had a more than common power to persuade himself of the reasonableness of what he wished to do. He found himself overthrowing all the sensible arguments which had occurred to him against marriage. Each day he found that he was more passionately devoted to her; and his unsatisfied love become angry and resentful.” (…)of-human-bondage

Philip: “You will marry me, won’t you?”

Mildred: “D’you think we should be happy?”

Philip: “No. But what does that matter?”

  •  p. 356-358: “He had long come to the conclusion that nothing amused him more than metaphysics, but he was not sure of their efficacy in the affairs of life. The neat little system which he had formed as a result of his meditations at Blackstable had not been of conspicuous use during his infatuation with Mildred. He could not be positive that reason was much of help in the conduct of life. It seemed to him that life lived itself. He remembered very vividly the violence of emotion which had possessed him and his inability, as if he were tied down to the ground with ropes, to react against it. He read many wise things in books, but he could only judge from his own experience (…); he did not calculate the pros and cons of an action, the benefits which must befall him if he did it, the harm which might result from the omission; but his whole being was urged on irresistibly. (…) The power that possessed him seemed to have nothing to do with reason; all that reason did was to point out the methods of obtaining what his whole soul was striving for.

Macalister reminded him of the Categorical Imperative:

“Act so that every action of yours should be capable of becoming  a universal rule of action for all men.”

“That seems to me perfect nonsense (…) It suggests that one choose one’s course by an effort of will. And it suggests that reason is the surest guide. (…)”

“You seem to be a contented slave of your passions.”

“A slave because I can’t help myself, but not a contented one,” laughed Philip.

  • While he spoke he thought of that hot madness which had driven him in pursuit of Mildred. He remembered how he had chafed against it and how he had felt the degradation of it. (…) When he was under the influence of passion he had felt a singular vigour, and his mind had worked with unwonted force. He was more alive, there was an excitement in sheer being, an eager vehemence of soul, which made life now a trifle dull. For all the misery he had endured there was a compensation in that sens of rushing, overwhelming existence. (…) “Well, I can’t say anything about other people. I can only speak for myself. The illusion of free will is so strong in my mind that I can’t get away from it, but I believe it is only an illusion. But it is an illusion which is one of the strongest motives om my actions. Before I do anything I feel that I  have choice, and that influences what I do, but afterward, when the thing is done, I believe it was inevitable from all eternity.”
  •  p. 372: “If he had any sense he would stick to Norah, she would make him much happier than he would ever be with Mildred; after all she loved him, and Mildred was only grateful for his help. But when all was said the important thing was to love rather than to be loved; and he yearned for Mildred with his whole soul. He would sooner have ten minutes with her than a whole afternoon with Norah, he prized one kiss of her cold lips more than all Norah could give him. “I can’t help myself,” he thought, “I’ve just got her in my bones.” He did not care if she was heartless, vicious and vulgar, stupid and grasping, he loved her. He would rather have misery with one than happiness with the other.”
  •  p. 403: “I wonder what it is I see in you,” he smiled. “That’s a nice thing to say,” she answered. Her body was so thin that one could almost see her skeleton. Her chest was as flat as a boy’s. Her mouth, with its narrow pale lips, was ugly, and her skin was faintly green.”
  • p. 424: “He did not know what it was that passed from a man to a woman, from a woman to a man, and made one of them a slave: it was convenient to call it the sexual instinct; but if it was no more than that, he did not understand why it should occasion so vehement an attraction to one person rather than another. It was irresistible: the mind could not battle with it; friendship, gratitude, interest, had no power beside it. Because he had not attracted Mildred sexually, nothing that he did had any effect upon her. The idea revolted him; it made human nature beastly; and he felt suddenly that the hearts of men were full of dark places.”
  •  p. 425: “She had a genteel refinement which shuddered at the facts of life, she looked upon the bodily functions as indecent, she had all sorts of euphemisms for common objects, she always chose an elaborate word as more becoming than a simple one: the brutality of these men was like a whip on her thin wide shoulders, and she shuddered with voluptuous pain.”
  •  p. 433: “It was not very comfortable to have the gift of being amused at one’s own absurdity.”
  •  p. 435: “It makes him feel rather wretched, you know.” “I can bear the trifling inconvenience that he feels with a good deal of fortitude.”, said Philip. “He’ll do anything he can to make it up.” “How childish and hysterical! Why should he care? I’m a very insignificant person, and he can do very well without my company.”
  • p. 485: “Philip had cultivated a certain disdain for idealism. He had always had a passion for life, and the idealism he had come across seemed to him for the most part a cowardly shrinking from it. The idealist withdrew himself, because he could not suffer the jostling of the human crowd; he had not the strength to fight and so called the battle vulgar; he was vain, and since his fellows would not take him at his own estimate, consoled himself with despising his fellows. For Philip this type was Hayward, fair, languid, too fat now and rather bald, still cherishing the remains of his good looks and still delicately proposing to do exquisite things in the uncertain future; and at the back of this were whisky and vulgar amours of the street. It was in reaction from what Hayward represented that Philip clamored for life as it stood; sordidness, vice, deformity, did not offed him; he declared that he wanted man in his nakedness; and he rubbed his hands when an instance came before him of meanness, cruelty, selfishness, or lust: that was the real thing. In Paris he had learned that there was neither ugliness nor beauty, but only truth: the search after beauty was sentimental. Had he not painted an advertisement of chocolat Menier in a landscape in order to escape from the tyranny of prettiness?  But here [the pictures of El Greco] he seemed to divine something new. He had been coming to it, all hesitating, for some time, but only now was conscious of the fact; he felt himself on the brink of a discovery. He felt vaguely that here was something better than the realism which he had adored; but certainly it was not the bloodless idealism which stepped aside from life in weakness; it was too strong; it was virile; it accepted life in all its vivacity, ugliness an beauty, squalor and heroism; it was realism still; but it was realism carried to some higher pitch, in which facts were transformed by the more vivid light in which they were seen. He seemed to see things more profoundly through the grave eyes of those dead noblemen of Castille; and the gestures of the saints, which at first had seemed wild and distorted, appeared to have some mysterious significance. But he could not tell what that significance was. It was like a message which it was very important to receive, but it was given him in an unknown tongue, and he could not understand. He was always seeking for a meaning in life, and here it seemed to him that a meaning was offered; but it was obscure and vague. He was profoundly troubled. He saw what looked like the truth by flashes of lightning on a dark, stormy night you might see a mountain range. He seemed to see that a man need not leave his life to chance, but that his will was powerful; he seemed to see that self-control might be as passionate and as active as the surrender to passion; he seemed to see that the inward life might be as manifold, as varied, as rich with experience, as the life of one who conquered realms and explored unknown lands.”


  • p. 509: Toward the end of his second term as in-patient’s clerk,

a piece of good fortune befell Philip.


Ari: I think there are two occurrences of this little sentence ‘a piece of good fortune befell him’ in the book (I can’t find the other one) and they always go like that: ‘on this precise place and time’, ‘a (little) piece of good fortune befell him’, and it is something not that extraordinary at first sight (here, for example, it is when he first encounters someone who’ll become a close friend). But this little sentence, which would almost go unnoticed is, what saves Philip, what saves the book and what saves mankind: we are taken by jouissance, we are under the spell of some script which was written before and for us, but then not all is said and the play is not played before we have said our last word and before we have played the play till the end. Indeed, on some precise moment and on some precise place, unforeseen by the script, a little piece of good (or sometimes also bad) luck may befell us. This pertains also to Derrida’s difference between ‘futur’ and ‘avenir’ : the future is already written, the ‘avenir’ is what will fall upon us, unforeseen.


  •  p. 543: “Philip wondered what it was that made people do things which were so contrary to all their theories of life. (…) It looked as though men were puppets in the hands of an unknown force, which drove them to do this and that; and sometimes they used their reason to justify their actions; and when this was impossible they did the actions in despite of reason.”
  • p. 586: “Philip thought that in throwing over the desire for happiness he was casting aside the last of his illusions. His life had seemed horrible when it was measured by its happiness, but now he seemed to gather strength as he realized that it might be measured by something else. Happiness mattered as little as pain. They came in, both of them, as all the other details of his life came in, to the elaboration of the design. He seemed for an instant to stand above the accidents of his existence, and he felt that they could not affect him again as they had done before. Whatever happened to him now would be more motive to add to the complexity of the pattern, and when the end approached he would rejoice in its completion. It would become a work of art (…).”

Ari: Mind it, it is not happiness which people strive for. A human being can stand a huge amount of unhappiness and live just as well. But what is at stake in life, is that it might make sense, that it makes sense to live. No happiness can make up for sense, but sense can make up for quite some unhappiness. To go for happiness is to make the wrong bet. Voir aussi Romain Gary (La Vie devant soi, 1975): “Mais je tiens pas tellement à être heureux, je préfère encore la vie. Le bonheur, c’est une belle ordure et une peau de vache et il faudrait lui apprendre à vivre. On est pas du même bord, lui et moi, et j’ai rien à en foutre. J’ai encore jamais fait de politique parce que ça profite toujours à quelqu’un, mais le bonheur, il devrait y avoir des lois pour l’empêcher de faire le salaud. Je dis seulement comme je le pense et j’ai peut-être tort, mais c’est pas moi qui irais me piquer pour être heureux. “.

  • p. 599: “Phlip thought of the countless millions to whom life is no more than unending labor, neither beautiful nor ugly, but just to be accepted in the same spirit as one accepts the changes of the seasons. Fury seized him because it all seemed useless. He could not reconcile himself to the belief that life had no meaning and yet everything he saw, all his thoughts, added to the force of his conviction.But though fury seized him it was a joyful fury. Life was not so horrible if it was meaningless, and he faced it with a strange sense of power.”
  • p. 600: “A feeling of disgust surged up in him at the thought of seeing her again. He did not care if she was in distress, it served her right whatever it was; he thought of her with hatred, and the love he had had for her aroused his loathing. His recollections filled him with nausea, and as he walked across the Thames he drew himself aside in an instinctive withdrawal from his thought of her. He went to bed, but he could not sleep; he wondered what was the matter with her, and he could not get out of his head the fear that she was ill and hungry; she would not have written to him unless she was desperate. He was angry with himself for his weakness, but he knew that he would have no peace unless he saw her.”
  • p. 623: “He almost regretted the penury which he had suffered during the last two years, since the desperate struggle merely to keep body and soul together had deadened the pain of living. In the sweat of thy brow shalt thou earn thy daily bread: it was not a curse upon mankind, but the balm which reconciled it to existence. But Philip was impatient with himself; he called to mind his idea of the pattern of life: the unhappiness he had suffered was no more than part of a decoration which was elaborate and beautiful; he told himself strenuously that he must accept with gaiety everything, dreariness and excitement, pleasure and pain, because it added to the richness of the design.”.
  • p. 679: “It might be that to surrender to happiness was to accept defeat, but it was a defeat better than many victories.”

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