Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

A reader's group devoted to the discussion of meaningful books.

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Conrad's Heart of Darkness

What makes us the way we are? Is it society with all of its rules and customs, or is it DNA, something primeval in the blood? There is a tendency among civilized people to think that philosophy, religion, or education will provide  answers to all those troubling questions about justice, fate, or good and evil. On the contrary, Joseph Conrad seems to believe that we, ourselves, are nothing more than a product of nature, with all those animal instincts still dormant within our soul. Can education make us better? Perhaps. But the idea that moral progress is a steady climb upwards from the mud and filth and brutal indifference of nature is not very reassuring. For every good impulse we have needs to be ratified daily, and blessed with the knowledge that we are still just one small step from the darkness composing our primal birth. Wisdom is the recognition that no society can ever banish completely the origin of our species. We must live with the knowledge of that inner demon and do what we can to contain it. Otherwise, like Kurtz, we will surely succumb to that primeval call which ends only in darkness.

Monday, May 23, 2016

CONRAD 3: Heart of Darkness (Literature and Darkness)

Heart of Darkness is a story and it’s a good story.  Herodotus tells a good story too in his Persian Wars (GB2) but that’s history, not literature.  Nietzsche also tells a good story in Thus Spake Zarathustra (GB5) but that’s philosophy, not literature.  Conrad’s main goal is not to tell us about the past or to analyze ideas.  His goal is to create a work of art that moves the reader on a different level.  How well he succeeds depends entirely on his ability to create a world in the mind of the reader; how well he can conjure up images and form meaningful scenes made out of nothing but words.  How well did Conrad succeed in doing this in his story, Heart of Darkness?        

In Chapter 3 the scene has Kurtz on a riverboat heading back down the river, back to civilization.  He’s very sick, in more ways than one.  Marlow says “his intelligence was perfectly clear; concentrated, it is true, upon himself with horrible intensity, yet clear… But his soul was mad.  Being alone in the wilderness, it had looked within itself, and, by heavens! I tell you, it had gone mad.”  Marlow thought Kurtz was insane.  The runaway Russian sailor-adventurer disagreed.  He told Marlow “You can’t judge Mr. Kurtz as you would an ordinary man.”  Why not?  The Declaration of Independence (IGB2) says “all men are created equal” and should be judged by the same laws.  Why use a different standard for Kurtz?  Conrad doesn’t say.  This isn’t a book about political philosophy and Conrad isn’t writing a treatise on equality.  He’s telling a story that focuses on one extraordinary man dying on a riverboat in a dark land far from home.

Death is the ultimate heart of darkness.  History chronicles plenty of deaths.  In Herodotus lots of people die in battle, by drowning, and by disease.  Philosophy also has a lot to say on the subject of death.  In Plato’s Apology (GB1) Socrates thinks death is one of two things: total oblivion or else a place where good people go to be rewarded and bad people go to be punished.  The German philosopher Schopenhauer (GB3) thinks death is a release from the burden of living.  In Rothschild’s Fiddle (GB1) Martha seems to agree.  She’s glad to be leaving her mean-spirited husband Jacob and her impoverished existence in their miserable Russian hut.  Toward the end of his own life Jacob reflects on how empty his life had been.  In that way he’s similar to Kurtz.  The result was a song of sadness that touched the hearts of everyone who heard it.  That’s what art can do.  Thousands upon thousands of people died in Herodotus’ history.  What were any of them thinking about in the last few minutes of life?  We don’t know.  Conrad doesn’t show us what death is like in abstract terms but how it confronts one individual person on an intensely personal level.  For Kurtz it was a dark confrontation.  Marlow heard him mumble “I am lying here in the dark waiting for death.”  Marlow didn’t see oblivion reflected on Kurtz’s face; or reward, or punishment either.  Just “an intense and hopeless despair.”  The last words Marlow heard him say were “The horror! The horror!”  Kurtz faced death the same way he faced life.  That’s what impressed Marlow.  “He had summed up; he had judged.  The horror!  He was a remarkable man.”  Kurtz was remarkable because he told the truth.  Death is horrible.  What was so horrible for Kurtz?  Leaving behind all his unfinished plans?  Facing darkness alone?  The knowledge that his life had been wasted on greed, lust and power?  We don’t know for sure but we all go down that same dark road eventually.  And we travel alone, like Kurtz.  Marlow says death “is the most unexciting contest you can imagine… without spectators, without clamour, without glory.”  All of Kurtz’s ambitious plans, all his ivory and power and glory, all his learning, his “intended” and everything else were of no help to him in the end.  Everyone goes down that same dark road and everyone ends up in the same dark place; in the grave, the real heart of darkness.  Conrad’s bleak vision is a remarkably dark literary achievement. 

Saturday, May 14, 2016

CONRAD: Heart of Darkness 2 (History and Darkness)

Joseph Conrad had a dark vision of the human condition.  If civilization is the culmination of human achievement then fire is a good symbol of his vision of civilization.  Conrad thinks we’re little better than savage cavemen sitting around a fire, surrounded on every side by a vast forest of darkness.  There’s no other light for hundreds of miles and darkness threatens to overwhelm us at any moment. The only thing standing between us and some terrible fate is this one little fire.  Most people never have time to think about such things; nor do we want to. We’re too busy making a living so we just huddle up closer to the fire.  Fire means comfort; cities, law and order, culture and the pleasures of living among other human beings.  But here’s the thought that worried Conrad.  What if the fire goes out?  Or, even worse, what if we forget how to make fire? 

History is the way we pass knowledge down from one generation to the next.  If civilization is like fire then history is like a torch.  We receive the torch from others.  It’s our job to keep the flame going and pass it on.  Conrad put it this way: “Each station should be like a beacon on the road towards better things, a centre for trade of course, but also for humanizing, improving, instructing.”  At least that’s the theory.  But theory belongs to philosophy, not to history.  When Socrates says “the unexamined life is not worth living” he’s speaking to everyone at all times in all places.  Philosophy deals with universal values but history deals with specific people doing specific things at specific times and places.  In this story a man named Marlow is heading down the Congo River on a steamboat around the turn of the nineteenth century to bring back a man named Kurtz.  It would not have been the same story if it had happened on the Mississippi River. 

And it wouldn’t have been the same story without the man named Kurtz.  In many ways he represents the best that Western civilization has to offer.  “All Europe contributed to the making of Kurtz” and no doubt he was well-read in literature, philosophy and history and his painting showed him to be a very good artist as well.  Kurtz was a very cultured man and “as he was good enough to say himself, his sympathies were in the right place.”  He was on the right side of history according to the fashionable views of his time.  He was a member of the International Society for the Suppression of Savage Customs and was commissioned to write a report “for its future guidance.”  Marlow read the report and it had started out all full of optimism.  Kurtz wrote that “by the simple exercise of our will we can exert a power for good practically unbounded.”  But something went terribly wrong.  He ended his report by scrawling a handwritten note in the margin: “exterminate the brutes!”  What had gone wrong?  For months on end no one heard from Kurtz.  There were rumors he was sick and “had recovered imperfectly.”  There were rumors he was not operating according to the rules of civilized behavior.  That’s why Marlow was captain of a steamboat sent to bring him back, back to civilization and the warmth of domesticated fire.                     

Here’s the special insight that makes Conrad’s story so disturbing.  What if the darkness isn’t out there somewhere, but inside; within us?  Kurtz isn’t the worst among us; he’s among the best.  He went down that river to bring the light of civilization to a dark land.  He went to bring trade and commerce along with the benefits of civilization; art, literature, history and philosophy.  But Kurtz brought darkness in with him.  Removed from the restraining influence of civilization he yielded to the primeval temptation of darkness heard long ago in Genesis (GB1) “ye shall be as gods.”  One of the lessons of history is that no civilization and no individual is exempt from the lessons of history.  The fire is fragile and civilization is just a thin veneer covering up vast darkness.  Scratch that surface and history seems to confirm Conrad’s bleak view of humanity.

Thursday, May 05, 2016

CONRAD: Heart of Darkness 1 (Philosophy and Darkness)

In our last reading Socrates says “I have no leisure worth mentioning either for the affairs of the City or for my own estate; I dwell in utter poverty because of my service to God.”  His “service to God” consisted mostly of talking about philosophy to any Athenian who would listen.  Athens was the place to be if you wanted to be on the cutting edge of culture and learning.  It was the London of the ancient world.  Like many folks who live in London today, Socrates couldn’t imagine living anywhere else.  He flatly refused the option of being exiled to some dull provincial Geek colony.  No thank you very much.  Socrates couldn’t see himself pursuing philosophy in a backwater town somewhere in Thessaly.  He wanted to be where the action was and for a Greek philosopher that meant Athens, the center of the ancient Greek world.  Marlow was, in his own way, a philosopher too; but of a different kind than Socrates.  Socrates wanted to stay put and bloom where he was planted.  Marlow had a childhood dream of putting out to sea and visiting “the dark places of the earth.”  So when he became a man that’s exactly what he did.  “He was a seaman, but he was a wanderer, too, while most seaman lead, if one may so express it, a sedentary life.  Their minds are of the stay-at-home order, and their home is always with them (the ship) and so is their country (the sea)… But Marlow was not typical.”       

Marlow was not a typical sailor and he’s not a typical philosopher either.  Sitting on the deck of their ship in London, waiting for the tide to come in, Marlow remarks to his shipmates, “This also has been one of the dark places of the earth.”  London has been described in many ways by many people but “one of the dark places of the earth” isn’t normally what comes to mind.  Marlow is talking about London before it became London; way back when it was nothing more than a wilderness to the civilized soldiers who manned the ranks of a Roman army led by Julius Caesar.  Marlow comments that “we live in the flicker… but darkness was here yesterday… imagine him here at the very end of the world… sand-banks, marshes, forests, savages; precious little to eat fit for a civilized man, nothing but Thames water to drink…they must have been dying like flies here… but they were men enough to face the darkness… all that mysterious life of the wilderness that stirs in the forest, in the jungles, in the hearts of wild men.  There’s no initiation either into such mysteries.  He has to live in the midst of the incomprehensible.”
 
This is Joseph Conrad’s style of philosophy.  It doesn’t have the reasonableness of Aristotle or the polished prose of Plato.  But it’s philosophy.  Aristotle makes sense reading him in a nice comfortable library or in the security of our own homes.  And through Plato’s writings we can imagine Socrates talking about truth and justice in front of a crowd of well-educated Athenians.  Conrad wants to take philosophy out of that comfort zone.  Heart of Darkness has a simple question.  What good is philosophy “at the very end of the world… among sand-banks, marshes, forests, and savages?”  Conrad doesn’t expect us to answer that it’s no good at all.  Instead, he invites the reader to take a journey into darkness, to experience the darkness, to confront it for ourselves.  It not a pleasant journey and there’s no initiation into Conrad’s world; no Philosophy 101 course to prepare us beforehand.  We have to jump in feet first and, at least for a time, “live in the midst of the incomprehensible.”  We have to get a feel for the land and try to make sense of life on a brooding river surrounded by a dark forest.  It can be disorienting but it’s only by going into this darkness that we’re really prepared to ask the question.  What good is philosophy, here, in this dark place?  Well, how does a dark place like ancient London go on to produce a Shakespeare or a John Locke?  Aristotle and Plato shine like beacons of light in the darkness.  Once upon a time Athens was one of those dark places too.  That’s what philosophy is good for.

Monday, May 02, 2016

PLATO: The Apology (Politics)

Socrates was on trial for his life and served as his own lawyer.  Depending on the reader’s point of view Socrates was (a) a terrible lawyer or (b) a brilliant one.  The charges against Socrates fall into two categories: political and religious.  The political charges seem vague to modern readers.  “Socrates is guilty of needless curiosity and meddling interference, inquiring into things beneath Earth and in the Sky, making the weaker argument the stronger, and teaching others the same.”  Socrates went to trial for this?  Even though these charges may seem vague to us, they weren’t vague to the Athenian jurors.  His accusers thought Socrates was guilty of trying to sabotage the whole Athenian political order.  Far from being a hero, Socrates was, in their view, a dangerous traitor to his country.  If Socrates’ goal was to get off then he made a terrible defense.  He mocked his accusers and left no room for jurors who might have voted for his acquittal under certain conditions.  “Would it not be possible for you to live in exile, Socrates, if you were silent and kept quiet?”  Socrates will make no deals because, as he publicly proclaims, “to do so would be to disobey God, and therefore I cannot do it.”  He won’t go away and he won’t be quiet.  Socrates informs the jurors that “God has fastened me to this City.  I rouse you.  I persuade you.  I upbraid you.  I never stop lighting on each of you, everywhere, all day long.”  This is an inspiring speech but it’s a terrible legal defense if you’re trying to get off in a capital crime case.    

Now here’s the argument why The Apology of Socrates was a brilliant strategy.  Socrates may have concluded from the start that he was doomed.  This “trial” was just a showcase to go through the motions of a proper legal proceeding.  Nothing Socrates could do or say would get him off.  So he decides from the beginning to use his trial as a platform to teach philosophy.  Socrates tells a story about the oracle at Delphi.  He could have just gotten right to the point but first he mentions a man named Chaerephon.  Socrates addresses the jurors with these words.  “You surely knew Chaerephon.  He was my friend from youth, and a friend of your democratic majority.”  Note how Socrates says “your” democratic majority.  A good defense lawyer would reject using divisive language in persuading a jury to let a client go free.  But Socrates’ primary goal isn’t to be set free.  He wants to use this opportunity to teach the Athenians about justice.  He wants to expose their ignorance, knowing full well what the consequences will be. 
 
Aristotle believed happiness is “an activity of the soul in conformity with a rational principle.”  To achieve happiness we need “a target to aim at to hit the proper mark.”  The “proper mark” for Aristotle is the highest good and “this good, one should think, is politics… since all knowledge and every choice is directed toward some good, let us discuss the aim of politics, (i.e. the highest good attainable by action).”  This statement helps put Plato’s Apology in perspective.  Socrates describes the danger of going into politics when he says “be well assured, Gentlemen of Athens, that had I attempted long since to enter political affairs, I should long since have been destroyed; to the benefit of neither you nor myself.  Please do not be angry at me for telling the simple truth.  It is impossible for any man to be spared if he legitimately opposes you or any other democratic majority… He who intends to fight for justice, if he is to be spared even for a little while, must live a private rather than a public life… do you think I would have lived so long if I had been in public life and acted in a manner worthy of a good man, fighting injustice?”  Plato thought this was the reason why so many good people stay out of politics and Socrates made this prediction: “This is what will convict me, if I am convicted; not Meletus, not Anytus, but the grudging slander of the multitude.  It has convicted many another good and decent man; I think it will convict me; nor is there reason to fear that it will end with me.”  Socrates was right about that.

Monday, April 18, 2016

ARISTOTLE: On Happiness (Jacob and His Fiddle)

In our last reading we met a character who never found the happiness he was looking for.  Toward the end of his long life Jacob thought about all the things he might have done.  He might have become a fisherman and sold fish in the marketplace.  He might have set up a travelling music-boat show.  He might have started a ferry business.  He might have raised geese.  Would any of these things have made Jacob happy?  In this week’s reading Aristotle says probably not.  Why not?  Because Jacob never fulfilled his proper role in life.  According to Aristotle “the proper function of man consists in an activity of the soul in conformity with a rational principle.”  Jacob was very active.  He made coffins, played the fiddle, drank vodka, and beat up on Jews.  But his life wasn’t guided by a rational principle or, for that matter, any guiding principle at all.  The only thing he really cared about was making money.  That seemed to be his only principle.  Aristotle doesn’t think getting rich is a necessarily a bad thing.  Having money is, in fact, one of the ingredients for happiness.  But it’s only one of the ingredients.  Aristotle notes that “some people think happiness is virtue; others that it is practical wisdom; others that it is some kind of theoretical wisdom; others believe it to be pleasure and some also include prosperity in its definition.”  Happiness may include these things.  But having any (or even all) of them is no guarantee that a person will be happy.  For Aristotle being happy reflects “a kind of good life and well-being.”  Jacob didn’t have a good life.  But it wasn’t because he was poor.  It was because he didn’t live well. 

What does Aristotle have in mind when he says we should live well?  Choosing the right things for the right reason and then doing them well is what he calls happiness.  Jacob does some things well.  He makes good coffins.  He’s a good musician.  But he fails to become a better man by participating in those activities.  Jacob doesn’t use his work and leisure time to improve his soul.  “Soul” for Aristotle is that life-giving part of us which makes us alive.  We’re not rocks.  Our “souls” make us capable of thinking and doing.  Aristotle thinks a well-lived life doesn’t just happen.  It’s planned and carried out according to a rational blueprint.  How do we develop this blueprint?  Aristotle responds “perhaps this is best done by first ascertaining the proper function of man.”  First we should determine what we’re here for and only then develop a life plan for ourselves.  Whatever plan we choose, Aristotle adds, we need to set high standards because “the function of the harpist is to play the harp; the function of the harpist who has high standards is to play it well.”  Jacob set high standards for making coffins.  He set high standards for playing the fiddle.  In those areas he did very well.  But he failed to set high standards for being a man.  He failed at being a good neighbor and a good husband.  Making coffins didn’t help him be a better friend to Rothschild and playing his fiddle didn’t help him be a better husband to Martha.  Instead, Jacob focused his life almost entirely on making money.  He thought this would make him happy.  Aristotle warns that “fortune does not determine whether we fare well or ill, but is, as we said, merely an accessory to human life.”  The winds of Fortune can blow against us.  We’ll see that happen when we read Antigone (GB1).  But we can’t blame all our misfortunes on Fortune.  Sometimes it’s our own fault.  We’ll see that when we read Othello (GB1).  Jacob’s fault wasn’t that he loved to play the fiddle.  His fault was using the fiddle as his primary emotional outlet.  He should have shared his feelings with his wife and fellow band members.  Aristotle tells us “the crown at the Olympic Games is not awarded to the most beautiful and the strongest but to the participants in the contest.”  Being a good fiddle player isn’t enough.  To be happy, to be a winner in life, you have to be in the game.  Jacob never got off the bench.  He just daydreamed about what might have been.  That makes for a good song but not a good life. 

Monday, April 11, 2016

CHEKHOV: Rothschild’s Fiddle (Preview of Great Books)

Rothschild’s Fiddle may seem like an odd choice to begin a Great Books series covering the best works of Western civilization.  Nevertheless it’s the first reading in the first volume of the series.  Why would the editors start with this reading?  We can only guess but one reason may be that it touches on so many of the great themes covered in the set.  And Jacob the protagonist provides some good opening Great Books questions of his own.  He wonders “Why couldn’t a man live without all that loss and fuss… Why do people always do the wrong things… Why are people generally such a nuisance to each other?”  The Preacher in Ecclesiastes (GB5) pondered those same questions three thousand years ago and concluded “All is vanity.”  This pessimism isn’t limited to the ancient world.  Arthur Schopenhauer (1788-1860) came to the same conclusion when he wrote that “death is the great opportunity to no longer to be I.”  (Indestructibility of Our Inner Nature, GB4)

This vision is too bleak for most people.  We want something a little more positive.  We want to go on living and, if possible, be happy, because as Aristotle wrote (On Happiness, GB1) “happiness is at once the best, noblest, and most pleasant thing.”  Jacob wasn’t able to find happiness in 19th century Russia.  Jews weren’t able to find happiness living in bondage in ancient Egypt either.  So the Lord said to Moses “Come now therefore and I will send thee unto Pharaoh, that thou mayest bring forth my people the children of Israel out of Egypt.” (Exodus GB2)  But it was hard for Jews to find happiness in 19th century Russia too because “For no obvious reason Jacob became more and more obsessed by hatred and contempt for Jews, and for Rothschild in particular.”  Jacob doesn’t understand his own hateful anti-Semitic views and at one point asks himself “what, oh what, was the point of scaring and insulting that Jew (Rothschild) just now?”  He has a change of heart and by the end of the story Jacob leaves Rothschild “that Jew” his beloved fiddle.

Jacob’s wife Martha also found it hard to find happiness in their little Russian village.  Living with a husband like Jacob made it nearly impossible for her to be happy.  Chaucer presents an interesting contrast of marriage in two of his Canterbury Tales (The Wife of Bath’s Prologue and The Clerk’s Tale GB3).  The Wife of Bath wouldn’t have put up with Jacob for a single day.  She says “I didn’t give a hen for all his proverbs and his wise old men.  I wouldn’t be rebuked at any price; I hate a man who points me out my vice, and so, God knows, do many more than I.”  At the opposite end of the spectrum is Griselda in The Clerk’s Tale.  Griselda says “I for one was never worth, never in my life, to be your chambermaid, much less your wife.”  Martha resembled Griselda more than she resembled the Wife of Bath.  Of course Griselda’s husband was a marquis and Jacob was a poor coffin maker.  But in the Clerk’s Tale marriage isn’t supposed to be a constant battle of the sexes the way the Wife of Bath portrays it.  The Clerk says “O bow your neck under that blessed yoke!  It is a kingdom, not a slavery.”  Only after Martha dies does Jacob finally realize how tyrannical he had been as a husband.  He wasted his only chance for happiness because “never in his life had he been kind to Martha or shown her affection.”  
  
This story touches on happiness, the nature of marriage, and many other themes covered in the Great Books: money, government and bureaucracy, the role of the arts, death and taxes.  That’s a lot to pack into such a short story.  Americans today face these same problems and Rothschild’s Fiddle still seems fresh.  We’ll explore its main themes in future GB readings.