Probably one of the oddest circumstances these ideas were ever to exert an influence over were the events surrounding the 1984 film adaptation of Maugham's book. According to an interview with the movie's director John Byrum, he had wanted to film an adaptation of The Razor's Edge in the early 1980s. Around this time, Byrum brought a copy of the book to his friend Margaret "Mickey" Kelley who was in the hospital after giving birth to her and her husband Bill Murray's child. Byrum said he got a call the next day at four AM, "and it was Mickey's husband, Bill [Murray]. He said, 'This is Larry, Larry Darrell'"—the hero protagonist and main man in search of meaning. Byrum and Murray subsequently drove off across America to write the screenplay.
This was in 1982, right after Murray had ascended to the Mount Olympus of America's comedy gods by following up his three year stint on Saturday Night Live (1977-1980) with starring roles in Meatballs (1979), Caddyshack (1980), and Stripes (1981). Thirty years later, after watching Murray's sad clown career unfold, this choice of his makes a bit more sense, but at the time no one was willing to accept this new direction from the golfing groundskeeper nemesis of gophers. While Murray was attached to the project, Byrum could not get a studio to finance The Razor's Edge. Only later, when Dan Aykroyd suggested that Murray could appear in Ghostbusters for Columbia Pictures in exchange for the studio greenlighting his passion project, were Murray and Byrum able to cut a deal with Columbia.
Filmed first, but released after Ghostbusters, The Razor's Edge was a commercial and critical failure. Reviews described it as "disjointed", "slow, overlong and ridiculously overproduced." Roger Ebert called it "flawed" and said the hero was "too passive, too contained, too rich in self-irony, to really sweep us along in his quest." Ebert placed the blame on Murray's shoulders, saying he "plays the hero as if fate is a comedian and he is the straight man." Meanwhile, Ghostbusters became the highest-grossing film of 1984. Talk about a precipitous drop in either direction—one towards trivial, supernatural buffoonery that was lapped up by the masses; the other towards an intellectually immature foray that was rejected by the intelligentsia. Poor Bill, just 34 years old at the time, failed to negotiate the narrow path between.
Upset over the failure of Razor's Edge, Murray took four years off from acting to study philosophy and history at the Sorbonne, and spend time with his family in their upstate New York Home, something akin to a Walden's Wood retreat. Had Murray followed this trail many years later and randomly come across my own historical and philosophical forays, he would have seen that I had this to say about the Upanishads and their fitness for survival in today's world:
Upanishads (12th century BCE is the best guess for the first Upanishads) are philosophical texts considered to be an early source of Hindu religion. 200 or so are known but the first ten, the Mukhya, are the oldest and most important. The most recent of these were written in the last few centuries BCE.
3. Death as Teacher - The preferable and the pleasurable approach man. The intelligent one examines both and separates them. Yea, the intelligent one prefers the preferable to the pleasurable, (whereas) the ignorant one selects the pleasurable. Arise, awake, and learn by approaching the exalted ones, for that path is sharp as a razor’s edge, impassable, and hard to go by, say the wise. Finding the balance between short-term and long-term, competition and cooperation, self and society, is indeed difficult but necessary for life in the fullest sense.
Needs to Adapt
1. The Inner Ruler - Protect your Self through detachment. Do not covet, for whose is wealth? We are part of this world and desires are natural and necessary for the progress that saves us. Recognize the need for flexible detachment. Covet wisely what is truly needed for oneself and society. The nature of Self is: "That moves, that does not move; that is far off, that is very near; that is inside all this, and that is also outside all this." This mystical riddle intended to broaden one’s awareness should simply be replaced with the need to recognize that the individual is also part of a larger society and larger ecosystem of life. Theoretical grasp about Self is called Vidya, while to take delusory experiences perceived through the senses as true, constitutes Avidya. He who knows these two - both Vidya and Avidya together - attains immortality by transcending them. Actual immortality is not reached this way, but you must know your senses, your reason, and discovered knowledge to understand reality.
2. Who Moves the World? - It is the Ear behind the ears, Mind behind the mind, Speech behind speech, Vital Life behind life. A mystical riddle to try to imply supernatural gods at work in the universe. There are no such things. The gravitational pull of the sun moves the world. Ask a more precise question for a more precise answer.
4. Questions - What is the root cause of this world? The union of Spirit and Matter, Spirit being Prana or life force. How many divine elements hold the body? Space, air, fire, water, and earth (matter), and speech, mind, eye, and ear (senses) say they hold the body, but Prana holds them all. How does Prana come into and leave the body? Prana divides himself into five forms. When death comes, life is carried to heaven (if good), hell (if sinful), or the world (if both). Which elements sleep? The way all sunrays go back to the sun at sunset, so all senses go back to their master, the Mind. What do you get from meditating on the holy syllable of Om? One who meditates will merge with the supreme reality. Who is the person with sixteen divine attributes? This is the highest Brahman; there is nothing higher. Life is the force behind all that is good in the universe. Modern science has given us a much stronger understanding of the origins, divisions, and complexity of life. There is no heaven or hell or even souls to go to such places, and reincarnation is certainly impossible in any meaningful way that would transfer individual consciousness. Whatever life brings together, death destroys forever. (In this sense, decaying fossils could still be said to be dying.) Sleep is much better understood; some facts about it remain to be discovered, but since rays do not go back to the sun at sunset, this is a poor metaphor for furthering any understanding. Meditation has been found to relax the mind and body, which has long-term health benefits associated with the reduction in stress, but this does nothing to instruct us about reality other than to make our minds clearer for learning and thinking. Positive psychology is finding more than 16 attributes that humans have found to be necessary to live the good life. There is nothing divine about any of this and there will always be higher excellence to attain. A priesthood (Brahman) teaching falsehoods as truths and claiming to own knowledge through divine revelation has no claims on the highest levels of personal development.
5. Two Modes of Knowing - The knowledge that leads to Self Realization is Great or Divine Knowledge and everything else is Knowledge of the Material World. Though Knowledge of the Material World enables one to earn one’s bread and helps one to understand each object of the universe separately, it does not show the Ultimate Reality or Root Cause of this universe. To attain ultimate salvation, knowledge of supreme reality is attained through the practice of monkhood. Desires cause rebirth in the world and one who renounces all desires will have no such rebirth. There is no reason to separate knowledge into divine or profane categories. Truth is truth. No monks own it with a special brand of thinking, and no one gains anything by sitting still and suppressing all desires. Desires must be understood and channeled into action in this world.
6. Consciousness and its Phases - There are three letters in the word aum. The a stands for the state of wakefulness. The u stands for the dream state. In the state of deep sleep, represented by the sound m, there is no desire and consciousness is gathered in upon itself. But there is a fourth, transcendent state, invisible, ineffable, intangible, devoid of characteristics, inconceivable, indefinable, its sole essence being the consciousness of its own Self; the coming to rest of all relative existence; utterly quiet; peaceful; blissful: without a second: this is the Ātman, the Self; this is to be realized. Consciousness and brain wave states of wakefulness and sleep are better understood now. The empty state of meditation is merely another such state, beneficial though it is for small doses of rest.
7. From Food to Joy - describes the various degrees of happiness enjoyed by the different beings in creation through many meditations. Meditation is nice, but it is not the goal of life. The goal should never be an attempt to remove oneself from life.
8. The Microcosm of Man - The Self only was in the beginning. He thought, “Let me now create the worlds." He created water, light rays, death, and elements such as water. He thought, “Here are now the worlds. Let me create their controllers." He brought out man and gave him shape. Another Genesis-like origin story before science uncovered evolution back to the big bang.
9. Song and Sacrifice - Many meditation practices. Also says, “That thou art,” an expression of the equal non-difference and difference between the individual self as a part of the whole. Again, too much emphasis on meditation instead of learning and action. Also, we are discrete organisms that act within the universe, not some mystical oneness with everything to be thought about and not thought about. Know thyself is a much better dictum.
10. Great Wilderness - the most detailed and magnificent revelation of the ancient philosopher-seers, which, in its six chapters packed with thought and revelation, provides to the students a practically exhaustive and concentrated teaching on every aspect of life, making it an indispensable guidebook to the student of literature as well as the philosopher, the religious devotee, and the mystical and spiritual seeker engaged in meditation for divine realization. There is no such thing as divine realization. Meditation cannot find it. The lack of scientific knowledge at the time it was written and the premise of mystical divinity make this unworthy of a detailed analysis. It is dismissed as a whole even though some common sense recommendations are contained within.
I read that now and think that it all comes across as a harsh and disjointed analysis of a scattered and disjointed philosophy. But in my defence, it was ridiculously hard to pin down a tight summary of the Upanishads, and I'm sure I was feeling quite frustrated by the experience. I suspect that like many mystical mounds of mumbo jumbo their slipperiness is what allows them to survive and continue to be explored and closely interpreted by people searching for meaning in this meaningless universe. When Ockham takes his razor to it though, and succinctness and brevity is enforced, very little of it survives the cut.