Sunday, January 20, 2013

The Lotus Eater

Many years ago, I read a book of short stories by W. Somerset Maugham. I considered his writing tedious, but one story stayed with me and I found myself referring to it from time to time in the 40-or-so years from then to now.

Called "The Lotus Eater," it tells of a British bank manager who chucks his nondescript life and moves to the isle of Capri. He has calculated that if he lives simply, he can make his savings last exactly 25 years, at the end of which he plans to take his own life. He sees this as a reasonable exchange--a shorter life but a thoroughly enjoyable one, enjoying warm breezes, ocean swims, natural beauty, and endless leisure.

The story jumps forward, and we learn from a narrator that the man never got around to doing himself in. When he first ran out of money, his easy life continued; he had paid his bills promptly for 25 years and people assumed he would soon do so again. But eventually his credit ran out. Facing hunger and homelessness, he set fire to his tiny rented house with himself inside. He survived, severely diminished. The narrator suggests that the man's brain may have been damaged by smoke inhalation, but I prefer to think he was shocked and deeply disappointed by the failure of his plan. In any case, by the time he dies he has spent six years living essentially like an animal--scavenging for food, getting a few handouts, sleeping in a shed, running from  human contact.

So why am I telling you this not-so-cheerful story?

I have always thought that the moral of "The Lotus Eater" is this: Will power is something we need to exercise regularly. If we live too easy a life we may not have the strength of character to do the difficult thing when it becomes necessary. I don't know whether I really believe that, but it seems to be a metaphor for what I was writing about a couple of weeks ago: Since retiring I have resisted structuring my day, scheduling my tasks, living by a to-do list. Without that structure, I realized that I wasn't getting around to doing things that I did, in fact, want to do. (Far better things than killing myself, by the way.)

I was going to use this story when I wrote about New Year's realizations and resolutions. But I decided I should reread it to see how reliable my memory was. I'd made haphazard efforts to find it over the years, without success. This time I Googled it and found a Wikipedia entry dated just a few months ago. I learned that I'd had the title wrong (it's singular,  not plural), and confirmed that the author was Maugham and not Evelyn Waugh. The story is found in Volume 4 of Maugham's short stories, and Amazon sent it along within the week. Isn't the Internet a wonderful thing?

The person who wrote the Wikipedia entry seemed to believe that the man should have worked longer and saved more money to be certain he didn't outlive his means. In fact, that is what most of us do, or try to do. But by telling the story through a narrator rather than the protagonist, Maugham seems determined to let us make our own judgments.

17 comments:

Wayne said...

I would very much like to read this - I'll go seek it out!

Ms Sparrow said...

But then again, one of the delightful things about retirement is the flexability to throw schedules out the window and do whatever the spirit moves you to do!
No use getting stuck in a rut. To me, the lesson of The Lotus Eater is to strike a balance and have a realistic plan. Suicide is not a "viable" plan!

Chartreuse said...

I do know what you mean about the danger of not getting round to the things you want to do. I am a full-time carer for my husband, and now and then I give myself licence to do as little as possible all day (like yesterday, watching the Australian Open tennis all day when I really ought to have been sewing curtains I promised to make for my daughter). But I, too, realise that there is a great danger in retirement that you get nothing done of all those things you had planned to do. And so I do structure many of my days (or try to, as much as my caring duties allow). Even so, I'm only too willing to change my plans when the spirit (or a friend's visit) moves me to do so. That, I believe, is the joy of retirement: having the flexibility to be as structured or as free as you want.

Linda Myers said...

I'm a born structurer of days - or at least I have a very structured, organized to-do list. Only some things absolutely have to be done today, though.

The man in the story had a plan, but he wasn't willing to execute the final option. Interesting, the outcome.

Jeanie said...

I have no doubt that with or without structure in your days right now that you have the strength of character to accomplish the necessary, whatever that might be for you at any given time.

DJan said...

I recently downloaded and read "Of Human Bondage" on my Kindle app. I had read this story by Maugham as a young woman and wondered how it would affect me today. It was good, but it didn't resonate like it did back then. I've not read "The Lotus Eater" or I think I would have remembered it.

We are all so different in the way we live our lives in retirement. I love having a structure but like to think I can change things around if I choose to.

Stephen Hayes said...

I, too, need to check out this book. It sounds really interesting.

Far Side of Fifty said...

Make your "to do " list in pencil and make sure you have an eraser. I have to have a list right now..or I will be so far behind I will never catch up. The list keeps me moving! I do allow a lollygagging day every once in a while:)

Grandmother said...

I structure some things that are important to me- running 3 times a week, working out 3 times, reading and writing each day or most, but the rest of the time I keep unstructured to do other fun things, relax, have coffee with friends, etc. A little of both works for me.

The Broad said...

One thing for sure ... blogging and keeping up with one's favourite bloggers means it's necessary to throw out the 'to-do' list an awful lot of the time!

It's interesting the short stories that stay with us. One that has stayed with me is 'Silent Snow, Secret Snow' by Conrad Aiken. Since it is snowing outside my window as I type it brought it back to mind. In fact I always think of this strange tale whenever it snows.

Teresa Evangeline said...

I have a deep desire to re-read several classics and see how I respond to them now as opposed to them, see how my perspective on life may or may not have changed. This sounds like an interesting exercise in doing so. I really like this post. It speaks to where my own thought is now. I love how these connections are made and persist.

Allyson said...

2 things right off the bat:
1) I LOVE the new headliner!! It reminds me of Colonial Williamsburg after a heavy snow.

2) I could not agree more with this! I don't think working from home is so different from being retired. Especially when you love what you do and would do it for free. But there has to be structure or your days will begin to look a lot like Facebook and Pinterest all day. And very little of what motivates you to get up each day. My mama always said the hardest part of being an adult is having to do what you would really don't want to do....from the grocery shopping to disciplining your children. But I think some willpower does lead to a more enjoyable life.

troutbirder said...

Hmmmm. Being a creature of habit I've fallen into some without a lot of planning or forthought. Perhaps not the best way to go....:)

Jenny said...

Being an artist I am not inherently a structured person. Being a mom of five and an art teacher I had to be. Now that I'm retired and living with a Dutchman there is more structure inmy life. I try to schedule as few things for myself as I can. I don't even want to paint because my husband structures that. I love to watch the birds and squirrels play, butterflies dance. And yes, I worry about the money running out. I pray a lot. Maybe I"m depressed after the holidays. xo Jenny

Jenny said...

This sounds intense. And quite philosophical. I'm going to download and it give a try!

Thank you!

WhisperingWriter said...

Hmm, that sounds interesting!

Cathy Tittle said...

How interesting. I have never read the story, but think I just might look up a copy. So many things in our lives depend on discipline and will power, which prevent us from living in chaos. I do believe that a bit of chaos helps our creative brain though, and let mine have free reign occasionally.

Good thoughts! I found you via Best Posts of the Week.

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