The Canadian Writers' Collective

Writing, and writerly tangents

Monday, April 09, 2007

Civility Wars

By Tamara Lee

In W. Somerset Maugham’s 1905 novel, The Merry-Go-Round, the protagonist, Miss Ley, asserts that ‘Nowadays self-sacrifice is a luxury which few have the strength to deny themselves.’ Grand notions of what it means to be civilized is the stuff for history papers and philosophers, not humans having to live their lives, Maugham suggests, and after hearing former boy-soldier Ishmael Beah speak recently at a packed-out high school auditorium, this assertion is difficult to argue.

A hundred years after Maugham’s treatise/novel, in Sierra Leone thousands of young people experienced self-sacrifice unlike anything Maugham could have imagined.

Ishmael Beah, after losing his whole family in a civil war conflict, found himself on the run for a year, and was finally recruited by the government army at 12 years old, eventually committing unspeakable acts in the name of personal survival. That he lives to tell us his story (in A Long Way Gone and on its book tour) is remarkable enough, that he does so with thoughtful earnest and surprising humour speaks even more of human nature’s incredible capacities.

Ours can be a selfish and self-absorbed society; our decadence embarrassing in its seemingly desperate reach for significant meanings, concocting turning points or poignancy for our lives. But there are times when the truly remarkable person or event can stop such cynicism in its trek.

For several years, Beah knew mostly brutality and fear. But there were rare moments, too, of humanity, he says. He describes with humour a night of dancing, ever-aware of his captors’ guns, to his hip-hop tapes in an effort to secure the safety of he and his friends. Somehow, since his release, he has been able to find humour again, to see beauty, in what he calls his second life, having learned just what kinds of things he and any human is capable of doing.

There so often seems a woeful lack of self-recognition or personal growth in the world. Maugham's piercing wit reveals the hypocrisies of a decadent and ‘civilised’ society seemingly incapable of restraint. But even in his world, there are flashes of true humanity. And for those who will learn something of themselves, and what folly are their hypocrisies, Maugham's Miss Ley reminds us:

“The world may be full of misery and disillusion…but there is one thing that compensates for all the rest… Beauty.”

With finite detail, Maugham describes the beauty of a grey winter London that will see spring again, and the rare roses that grow out of coffins. Beah recalls the small acts of dangerous kindness he encountered during his journey toward his second life.

And in the end, for Beah and Maugham, a civil world is not a self-sacrificing one, but a society that believes in second-chances.


Anonymous Colin said...

Thanks Tamara. Tricia and I recently saw "The Hoax" with Richard Gere as Clifford Irving, detailing the writing of his fake autobiography of Howard Hughes. It made me wonder about second chances, in this case Irving being rewarded for writing about his criminal activity which wasn't forced, and where there didn't seem to be any evidence of remorse.

Mon Apr 09, 12:13:00 pm GMT-4  
Blogger Tricia Dower said...

What a beautiful boy. How wonderful that he's come out of this able to smile, at least occasionally. I imagine his book would be painful to read.

Mon Apr 09, 01:20:00 pm GMT-4  
Blogger tamara said...

Thanks, you two, for reading.

You're right, Colin. It seems what we do with our second chances can be suspect, as with the Irving case. I've not yet read Beah's book, Tricia, but I understand it's both painful and surprisingly hopeful. Once I read it, perhaps I'll write a mini-review.

Mon Apr 09, 09:44:00 pm GMT-4  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Haven't stopped by in awhile only to find this excellent commentary -thanks for that.

Diane, The Maple Room

Wed Apr 11, 03:31:00 pm GMT-4  

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