While reading Elspeth Huxley's biography on Robert Falcon Scott, Scott of the Antarctic, I came across a very interesting passage where Huxley reveals that "Scott was not the first man of action to think that he would rather write a great poem or paint a masterpiece than scale Mt. Everest or, in his own case, reach the South Pole (148). It much reminded me of William Somerset Maugham's novel, The Razor's Edge, where Larry Darrell chooses a life of financial uncertainty and soul-searching over one of wealth and security. As the title suggests, however, Darrell could just as easily have gone the other way. The image of the razor prompts us to regard the decision as not entirely rational or perhaps not entirely of his own volition. In that sense, each of us straddles the razor, thinks about each of the sides, but quickly slides off to one side and not the other. This scenario, in turn, reminds me of Tennyson's poem "Ulysses" and the observation that "all experience is an arch wherethro' Gleams that untravell'd world whose margin fades For ever and forever when I move." All of which makes me think that we are never who we think we are. We are the complete opposite of who we think we are. Or, put another way, we are all capable of being that which we think we are least capable of being.
Here is the rather interesting passage in Huxley's book.
The diminutive Scots playwright James Barrie was a new literary friend. Scott and he were introduced, it has been said, by the novelist A. E. W. Mason at a dinner party in London. Barrie's version of their meeting has often been quoted. Having 'found the entrancing man I was unable to leave him'; after dinner they saw each other home throughout the night, back and forth between Adelphi Terrace and Oakley Street, unable to break off a conversation largely concerning 'a comparison of the life of action (which he pooh-poohed) with a the loathly life of those who sit at home (which I scorned)'.
Barrie's admiration for Scott is easily explained. He had always idolised men of action; Joseph Thomson, the first European to march through the heart of Masailand, had been one of his friends and heroes. Scott, with the added glamour of the navy, brave and modest, clean-living and sensitive, was what Markham might have called the beau ideal of an explorer. The attraction Barrie held for Scott is less obvious. Perhaps it sprang from Scott's youthful but now abandoned ambition to express himself in writing, added to an interest in the stage first aroused by his sister's brief career as an actress, and to an almost wistful admiration for things of the mind rather than of the muscle. Scott was not the first man of action to think that he would rather write a great poem or paint a masterpiece than scale Mt. Everest or, in his own case, reach the South Pole (147-148).