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On Instagram, travel writing and On A Chinese Screen by W Somerset Maugham

On a Chinese Screen by W Somerset Maugham2 On Instagram, travel writing and On A Chinese Screen by W Somerset Maugham

 

I have a friend who’s a former chef. The only thing he loathes more than poor-quality coffee is the current trend of amateur food photography.

“Wouldn’t you rather enjoy the food that someone’s prepared for you, and spend some time hanging out with your friends rather than fiddling around with the filters on Instagram?” he said one day.

This obsessive need to document and share our lives isn’t just limited to food, however. Just as our phones have become an extension of our memories as far as contact details, maps and schedules are involved, photo-sharing sites have become the way that we engage with the narratives of our lives. Retrospectively, and with rose-tinted lenses that are no longer just metaphorical.

Rather than experiencing a moment, embracing its temporal ephemerality, letting it shape us in its own subtle way…and then allowing it to slip into memory until dredged up into consciousness by some conversational or olfactory mnemonic, we’ve become obsessive documentary-makers. But one of the things about being able to outsource the recording of these experiences is that we don’t necessarily engage with them with the depth that we might otherwise.

My in-laws are a case in point: after putting together a precarious, overpopulated itinerary, they’ll hurtle their way through their trip, sitting back to relax and reflect on the experience only on the plane afterwards, digital cameras at the ready. Oohs and aahs will ensue as they try to piece together their holiday from the photographic artefacts beeping along in a slideshow in their hands.

I’m not sure that these sorts of pictures are each worth a thousand words.

But we’re all guilty of this. Digital cameras mean that we don’t need to be discerning in what we photograph–every moment, then, is given an equal weight. But not all moments are created equal, and being able to differentiate what ought to be retained, not to mention the way that we choose to document it, is somewhat of an art. One, I can’t help but feel, that’s fading away with the need to internalise travel directions (I will be forever glad that I’m young enough that thanks to GPS systems whatever part of my brain in charge of this can be put to use doing other things. Coming up with meme extensions, perhaps.)

I can’t help but wonder what W Somerset Maugham’s On a Chinese Screen might have looked like had he been travelling through China today, rather than a century ago. A slim edition of just under sixty vignettes written during his travels through China in 1919, the book is described not as a novel, but rather as material for a novel. There’s not a photograph nor a FourSquare check-in in sight.

Rather, with only one or two exceptions, the book comprises lengthy character sketches of the people, largely western foreigners living in China, Maugham met as he made his way along the Yangtze. It’s wry, devastating, and infuriating in turn, and it presents a shame-inducing picture of western attitudes towards the Chinese in the early twentieth century. Though he gives only a couple of pages to each character, slipping from merchant to philosopher to cabinet minister with the staccato induced by a page-turn, a story–or at least, a perspective–arises from these observations, and it’s a damning one.

For the most part these are people who disdain, resent or reject China, and who are clinging to their past lives in the west, no matter how distant they might be.

In “My Lady’s Parlour” we read of a woman who has turned a temple into a dwelling house, carefully papering over its history with western tapestries and accoutrements. And let’s not forget the kitchen: “Here generations of believers had burned their tapers and prayed, some for this temporal benefit or that, some for release from the returning burden of early existence; and this seemed to her the very place for an American stove.” There are missionaries who hold nothing but loathing towards the Chinese, and gadabouts who treat the country and its people as some sort of personal carnival.

We read of people bored and disengaged with what they see as a purgatorial stretch in a culture they perceive as so far beneath them that they see it as either a playground or a prison. The tall man in charge of the BAT, for example: “He is bored. It has never occurred to him that he lives a life in which the possibility of adventure is at his doors. He can only recognise it through the printed page; and it needs a story of derring-do in Texas or Nevada, of hairbreadth escape in the South Seas, to stir his blood.” Even the Chinese scholar we encounter seems to be undertaking his studies less out of an interest in the culture than he is in satisfying a grudge against a fellow scholar.

And then there are the displaced, the people live between cultures, or long to become a part of a culture they see as being elevated above their own–a snobbery and cultural relativism that becomes only more pronounced against the Chinese backdrop. In “Dinner Parties” we read of a young Russian woman who experiences deep ennui “when you [speak] to her of Tolstoy or Chekov; but [grows] animated when she [talks] of Jack London. ‘Why,’ she [asks], ‘do you English write such silly books about Russia?’. Then there’s the First Secretary of the British Legation, who speaks “French more like any Frenchman who had ever lived” and who “you [wish] with all your heart…would confess to a liking for something just a little bit vulgar”. Or Her Britannic Majesty’s Representative, who while fixing his pince-nez more firmly on his nose, argues that it is monstrously untrue to accuse him of putting on airs of superiority.

Then there are the confessional moments, the ones that are so perfectly familiar…but which, I realise as I write this, probably won’t be for much longer:

“How precious then is the inordinate length of your book (for you are travelling light and you have limited yourself to three) and how jealously you read every word of every page so that you may delay as long as possible the dreaded moment when you must reach the end! You are mightily thankful then to the authors of long books and when you turn over their pages, reckoning how long you can make them last, you wish they were half as long again.”

On a Chinese Screen is a magnificent read, capturing in so few words entire people and a painful, lingering sense of cultural superiority, and I found myself wishing that I’d spent more time engaging and reflecting during my past trips abroad, rather than letting so much slip through my fingers as I watched the shutter click again and again.

Until I read this paragraph referring to the work of Jonathan Swift: “the words,” writes Maugham, “are the same as those we use to-day and there is hardly a sentence in which they are not placed in the simplest order; and yet there is a dignity, a spaciousness, an aroma, which all our modern effort fails to attain: in short there is style.”

A familiar sentiment.

Perhaps, after all, food photography isn’t to blame. Perhaps it’s perfectly normal not to be able to appreciate something until we have enough distance from it that our perspective is sufficiently undistorted by time and emotion. Now excuse me while I upload some photos of my afternoon coffee to my Instagram account.

Support Read in a Single Sitting by purchasing On a Chinese Screen using one of the affiliate links below:

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Other books by W Somerset Maugham:

Of Human Bondage by W Somerset Maugham1 On Instagram, travel writing and On A Chinese Screen by W Somerset Maugham Caesars Wife by W Somerset Maugham1 On Instagram, travel writing and On A Chinese Screen by W Somerset Maugham The Land of Promise by W Somerset Maugham1 On Instagram, travel writing and On A Chinese Screen by W Somerset Maugham

9 comments

  1. “Rather than experiencing a moment, embracing its temporal ephemerality, letting it shape us in its own subtle way…and then allowing it to slip into memory until dredged up into consciousness by some conversational or olfactory mnemonic, we’ve become obsessive documentary-makers.”

    Let me give you some advice – print this review and place carefully in a fancy gold frame and then stick it on your front door for everyone to admire. Because frankly, you rocked the hell out of this review. Bloody awesome.

  2. Interesting to tie Instagram to this book. I know that there are chefs and restaurants who aren’t happy with the whole Instafood thing but I am not convinced by your friend’s statement. Taking a photo and posting it takes a minute at most and then not only do you still get to experience the taste and the company and even better a couple of weeks later you can look back and think how tasty it really was. Unless it is the idea that only professional photos count. Oh wait…don’t we hear that about book reviewers too?

  3. I’ve not read W Somerset Maugham yet, this one sounds interesting but what’s with those covers being all the same? I’m not sure I like them all being the same

  4. I agree with Sonia — awesome post! Instagram is just the newest way of documenting life (one which I haven’t jumped on board with yet), not a completely new phenomenon. As with everything, it’s important to find the right balance when using it.

    • Thanks, Laurie! I completely agree that Instagram is just the newest way of capturing our memories, but I do think that these sorts of programs will change the way that we focus or reflect on our memories. People definitely use their photographs differently from how they used to, and we write differently as well. Not necessarily *worse* or *better*, but certainly differently. I’m curious to see where we’ll be in a few decades’ time when our Google Goggles are recording our every moment!

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