Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

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

Monday, March 29, 2010

TOLSTOY: The Death of Ivan Ilych

There’s no instruction book about how to die properly. It’s one of those things you just have to learn by doing it yourself. And there doesn’t seem to be much agreement about how it should be done. Dylan Thomas says Do not go gentle into that good night, Old age should...rage, rage against the dying of the light. On the other hand Emily Dickinson tells us that Because I could not stop for Death, he kindly stopped for me. In the end should we rage or go gently? Ivan Ilych did a little of both. Is death cruel or kind? For Ivan Ilych it was a little of both.

We learn the basic facts of Ivan’s life early in the story: Ivan Ilych's life had been most simple and most ordinary and therefore most terrible. He had been a member of the Court of Justice, and died at the age of forty-five. This in itself is something to think about. Are the “most ordinary” lives really the “most terrible” ones? If that’s true then it might include folks like me and you. The very definition of ordinary takes in the majority of people. And we may even be more ordinary than Ivan. He at least achieved the high social position of judge and married an attractive woman from a good family: Praskovya Fedorovna came of a good family, was not bad looking, and had some little property. Ivan Ilych might have aspired to a more brilliant match, but even this was good. Like many people who start life out with high hopes and dreams, Ivan became disillusioned with reality. Very soon, within a year of his wedding, Ivan Ilych had realized that marriage, though it may add some comforts to life, is in fact a very intricate and difficult affair. Sometimes being grown up isn’t as much fun as it seems to be to children. And like many men, Ivan learned how to adjust to this new reality: he looked for lighthearted pleasure and propriety, and was very thankful when he found them, but if he met with antagonism and querulousness he at once retired into his separate fenced-off world of official duties, where he found satisfaction. Lots of men find peace at work, at a local bar, a golf course, fishing at the lake; whatever gets you through life, as long as you show up for work on Monday morning. Years can drift by like that. A whole lifetime can pass. Then what?

It wasn’t until Ivan was aware that he might be dying that the question suddenly occurred to him: "What if my whole life has been wrong?” Up until then he was content to just drift through life working at the office, fixing up his house, playing cards and avoiding unpleasant encounters, even encounters with his own wife and daughter. Then he one day got sick and went to see a doctor. The report wasn’t good: From the doctor's summing up Ivan Ilych concluded that things were bad, but that for the doctor, and perhaps for everybody else, it was a matter of indifference, though for him it was bad. It’s bad enough to find out you’re sick and may not ever get better again. To add insult to injury, no one except you seems particularly disturbed by this terrible news. And it gets even worse because you start thinking about it too much: His condition was rendered worse by the fact that he read medical books and consulted doctors. So there you have it. Ivan’s dying and the whole world seems to go on with business as usual. How can this be?

Ivan’s last days are spent in pain. He suffers terribly and there isn’t any easy way out. Ivan just has to go through the whole grim process alone. No one can suffer for him. No one can die for him. It’s something he has to do for himself. At first he rages: He wept on account of his helplessness, his terrible loneliness, the cruelty of man, the cruelty of God, and the absence of God. "Why hast Thou done all this? Why hast Thou brought me here?" He did not expect an answer and yet wept because there was no answer and could be none. But in the end death is a kindness and Ivan goes the way of all flesh. There’s no guidebook. We just have to do it.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010


The world has changed a lot since 1500. That’s about the time Machiavelli wrote his famous book about how to be a successful prince. Today we sometimes hear about a politician or business leader being “Machiavellian” and we know it’s not meant as a compliment. It means this guy is a bad guy. But if Machiavelli was such a bad guy then why do we still read him today? Few of us will ever be called upon to act in the role of a Renaissance ruler. So a better question might be: can Machiavelli’s philosophy work for ordinary people in modern America? In this selection the answer is both yes and no. There’s a lot of bad advice here if you want to live in a modern democracy like America. But there’s a lot of good advice too.

Let’s concentrate on two or three major themes from Machiavelli that can be adapted for modern life in America. First, Machiavelli advises us to build our lives on a firm foundation. He says that …men change their rulers willingly, hoping to better themselves, and this hope induces them to take up arms against him who rules: wherein they are deceived, because they afterwards find by experience they have gone from bad to worse… In modern terms the grass isn’t always greener on the other side. It’s usually worse than what we have now. So don’t put your faith in daydreaming about some utopian life. Live in the real world. One way to do this is by looking around or reading about how other successful people lived their lives. Why? According to Machiavelli Men almost always walk the path made by others and conduct their affairs through imitation. Find out how other people did it. Then try to be like your successful role model. People can be successful in different ways. Socrates was successful in a different way than Henry Ford, for example. But once you make a decision, stick with your choice. Machiavelli says a man should be firm in his decisions. He should carry through what was decided and be firm in his decisions…because if he doesn’t It comes about that things he accomplishes one day, he destroys the next, and that no one ever understands what he wishes or plans to do.

Once you know what you want to accomplish then go for it. But if one thing is certain in life, it’s this: there will be obstacles in any path to success. Other people may want the same things you do or may want to keep you from achieving your goals. So Machiavelli’s second piece of advice is: Learn to deal with conflict effectively. Everyone will have conflict. The only question is when and where and how to deal with it. Machiavelli is blunt on this topic. He reminds us that At the beginning the disease is easy to cure but difficult to recognize, but as time goes on…it becomes easy to recognize and difficult to cure. If we put things off and let problems fester they’ll only get worse. This is true for political and military leaders but it’s also true for ordinary people dealing with conflict. War cannot be avoided but only postponed to the advantage of others…one must never permit disorder to develop in order to avoid going to war, because one does not avoid war but rather defers it to his own disadvantage. This doesn’t mean we should deal with conflict like a bull in a china shop. Instead we should use Machiavelli’s method of the lion and the fox: The lion has no protection from traps, and the fox is defenseless against the wolves. Therefore it is necessary to be a fox in order to know the traps, and a lion to frighten the wolves. That’s easy to say and hard to do.

Of course many of Machiavelli’s theories wouldn’t work today. He advises the prince to eliminate his enemies by killing them off. That’s illegal in modern America. Some of his other advice is also questionable, like his famous statement that it’s better to be feared than loved. But Machiavelli knows how the real world works. That’s why we still read him in 2010.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

HENRY JAMES: The Beast in the Jungle

There are lots of self-centered characters in the Great Books. The Wife of Bath, Achilles, the professor in Uncle Vanya, Hamlet. They’re all self-centered but for different reasons. Some of them don’t think enough. Some of them think too much. Some of them act too quickly. Some of them don’t act quickly enough. John Marcher does these things in Henry James’ story about The Beast in the Jungle. The plot is simple. Marcher meets an old acquaintance named May Bartram. Once when he was younger Marcher had shared a confidential secret with May. His life was to be overshadowed by the notion that something dreadful is going to happen to him. He can’t say what it is because he doesn’t know. He just knows that he dreads the confrontation with this “Beast.” She promises not to tell anyone. She also promises to watch with him for the Beast that threatens to devour him (metaphorically) some day. They watch and wait together. And wait. And wait. Nothing happens. They wait some more. Still nothing happens. Finally they grow old and May dies. Marcher is left alone. At the end of his life he realizes that he should have loved May all along. So that was the Beast? Then he falls face down on her tombstone. End of story.

This version of the story captures the essentials of what happened to John Marcher. But telling it that way somehow misses the whole point. Outwardly Marcher lived a full life. He was well off financially and had many friends in the highest circles of society. He traveled widely. He went to art museums and attended the opera several times a month. He had a charming companion who invited him into her home in a fashionable part of London. But something was wrong with Marcher. Something was terribly wrong. In some ways he was like Kurtz in Conrad’s story Heart of Darkness. Kurtz was a civilized man living in a barbaric part of the world. He looked inside his own heart and found, to his horror, that he was hollow inside. Marcher was a civilized man living in a civilized part of the world. The solitude and “darkness” of Africa forced Kurtz to face his hollow life. Marcher wasn’t hollow. He was just full of Marcher.

All self-centered characters are afraid of something. The Wife of Bath was afraid of growing old. Achilles was afraid of losing his honor. Hamlet was afraid of letting down his father. Kurtz was afraid of civilization and what it would do to him. What was Marcher afraid of? The Beast. What was that? He didn’t know. Here’s a sample conversation between Marcher and May Bartram: There passed before him with intensity the three or four things he wanted most to know; but the question that came of itself to his lips really covered the others. "Then tell me if I shall consciously suffer." She promptly shook her head. "Never!" It confirmed the authority he imputed to her, and it produced on him an extraordinary effect. "Well, what's better than that? Do you call that the worst?" "You think nothing is better?" she asked. Nothing? That’s what Marcher was afraid of, nothing. May Bartram knew Marcher better than he knew himself. She knew he wouldn’t suffer because he would never allow anything to pierce his own carefully constructed inner world. He was devoured by his own Beast. And he would never escape his own self-centeredness. Why? Because He had seen OUTSIDE of his life, not learned it within, the way a woman was mourned when she had been loved for herself… The escape would have been to love her; then, THEN he would have lived. SHE had lived--who could say now with what passion?—since she had loved him for himself; whereas he had never thought of her… he had thought only of himself. She devoted her life to him. Even after she realized there was no Beast, she stayed with him. Why? Because she loved him. The escape for Marcher would have been to love her back. He missed his chance. And that was the real beast in the jungle.

Sunday, March 07, 2010

SHAKESPEARE: Much Ado About Nothing

Consider the world’s great romances. Romeo and Juliet. Antony and Cleopatra. Scarlett O’Hara and Rhett Butler. Adam and Eve. Popeye and Olive Oyl. Now let’s take a short survey. Consider two theories of love. The first theory is love at first sight. Romeo sees Juliet at a party and that’s it. It’s all over. He falls head over heels in love and forgets any other woman. Romeo: Did my heart love till now? Forswear it, sight! For I ne'er saw true beauty till this night. From now on Juliet is the only one for him. And a famous love story begins. The second theory of love is this: opposites attract. Beatrice sees Benedick at a gathering and that’s it. But it’s far different from the scene with Romeo and Juliet. Beatrice: I wonder that you will still be talking, Signior Benedick: nobody marks you. Nobody’s listening Benedick, so why do you keep jabbering away? Beatrice is obviously not another Juliet and Benedick is no Romeo, so he fires back. Benedick: What, my dear Lady Disdain! are you yet living? Why Beatrice, we all thought you’d be dead by now.

Here’s the survey question. Which of these couples do you think will live happily ever after: Romeo and Juliet or Benedick and Beatrice? Hint: surveys about love are worthless. There’s no correct answer. What would happen if Romeo fell head over heels in love with Juliet but she didn’t love him back? Or what if she smiled and was missing a couple of teeth? These are questions for philosophers. But for Shakespeare it wasn’t a question of whether the correct answer is (A) love at first sight, or (B) opposites attract. The correct answer is (C) all of the above. Some of Shakespeare’s plays about love are comic and others are tragic. Romeo and Juliet did not turn out well. Neither did Othello. But Much Ado About Nothing has a happy ending. Plays never end the same way. Neither does love.

Some observers have viewed love as a sort of temporary insanity. This was Benedick’s attitude at the start of the play. For example, Claudio is in love with Hero. He dotes on her as much as Romeo doted on Juliet. Claudio asks Benedick: Can the world buy such a jewel? The jewel of course is Hero. She’s the whole world to Claudio but to Benedick she’s just another attractive woman. There are lots of them in Messina where the play takes place. So Benedick’s response is meant to burst Claudio’s love bubble: : Claudio: Can the world buy such a jewel? Benedick: Yea, and a case to put it into. This doesn’t discourage Claudio one bit. Hero’s perfect for Claudio. But Hero would be a dull partner for Benedick. Juliet would have been a dull partner for Benedick. He’s all full of energy and wit. Women like Hero and Juliet are delicate flowers that need wooing. What Benedick needs is a woman just as full of energy and wit as himself. One who can give as good as she takes. It’s hard to imagine Juliet responding well to an insult: my dear Lady Juliet! are you yet living? And it’s hard to imagine Romeo falling for Beatrice if she told him I wonder that you will still be talking, Signior Romeo: nobody marks you. Romeo would have wilted. And in return how would Beatrice react if Romeo had responded Did my heart love till now? This would not have been a healthy relationship.

For one thing Beatrice is an experienced woman and Romeo isn’t much more than a boy. It’s appropriate for him to be attracted to an impressionable girl like Juliet but not to a feisty woman like Beatrice. He would have been out of his league. It would have been just as awkward for a grizzled old warrior like Othello to come on to Juliet. She would have been scared out of her wits. But in Othello Desdemona is attracted to his tough guy image. In Much Ado Beatrice needs Benedick and he needs her. Sometimes opposites do attract. Just not at first sight.

Monday, March 01, 2010

AESCHYLUS: Agamemnon

The plot of the story is simple. Ten years ago Agamemnon learned that he had to sacrifice his daughter Iphigeneia if he wanted to lead the Greek army to sack Troy. He did both. Now he’s coming back home. His wife Clytemnestra has grieved all this time for Iphigenia and she promptly kills Agamemnon as soon as he sets foot in the house. Then Clytemnestra ends with a speech that basically says “He needed killing.” End of play. What’s going on here? What’s the point of all this killing and revenge? The plot is just the surface of the story. The real meaning takes place in the depths of the human mind. Aeschylus is not only the West’s first great dramatist; he’s also one of its first great psychologists.

The very start of the play gives us the clue to figure out its meaning. Before any of the major characters have even entered the stage we get a sense that something bad has happened here before. And something bad will happen here again. There’s a brooding tone that settles over the reader (or the audience). The presence of some unknown force lurks just beneath the surface and will soon wreak havoc. The watchman informs us that the house and these old stones, give them a voice and what a tale they’d tell. Bad things have obviously happened in this “house of Atreus.” Of course the house can’t talk and the watchman merely says I speak to those who know. That’s not us. We’re the ones who don’t know. So for us the watchman replies: to those who don’t know my mind’s a blank. I never say a word. He knows something we don’t and he’s not telling. We have to figure out the truth for ourselves. And what we learn isn’t pleasant. It’s a hard lesson. The Chorus is the teacher and here’s our lesson: in the end it goes as it goes. That’s typical of the hard-headed Greeks to merely state the obvious. Of course life goes as it goes. Any fool can tell you that. A spade is a spade too. Modern Americans believe that just as much as the ancient Greeks did. That’s because we’re both practical cultures based on reason and commerce. But here’s where we part company with the Greeks. The Chorus goes on to say where it ends is Fate… Unlike the ancient Greeks very few modern Americans believe in the concept of Fate. Most of us believe we shape our own destinies through the decisions we make. Why did the Greeks think differently? Were they superstitious or any less rational than us? Who in their right mind could believe in a god as childish as Zeus?

Actually they were at least as smart as we are. They just approached life on different terms. When Americans come up against something we don’t understand we tend to turn to science and technology for answers. The ancient Greeks also used science and technology. But they probed deeper into the psyche than modern Americans tend to do. There’s something about the human condition that defies even the latest science and the best technology. Do I have a purpose in life? Why do bad things happen to good people? What will happen to me after I die? Science and technology have no answers to these questions. The Greeks didn’t always have the answer either, but they had a word for it: Zeus. Aeschylus put it this way: Zeus, great nameless all in all, if that name will gain his favor, I will call him Zeus. I have no words to do him justice, weighing all in the balance, all I have is Zeus, Zeus… We don’t use the term “Zeus” but we face roughly the same thing when we talk about the unknown. There are some things simply beyond human comprehension. For the Greeks this was the realm of the gods and this is the brooding presence that hovers over the play. There’s an ancient crime that cries out for the revenge of blood. Clytemnestra tries to explain herself more clearly to those of us who have been formed in the rational ways of science and technology. She says that Three generations feed the spirit in the race. Deep in the veins he feeds our bloodlust… The sins of the fathers will be taken out on the children. This is absolutely contrary to the American legal system. No matter. The gods will not be denied. Clytemnestra has killed Agamemnon. But that’s only the surface action. To understand what has really taken place we have to dig deeper; deeper into the motives of the human mind and the ways of the gods. Clytemnestra sees clearly what has really happened: You claim the work is mine, call me Agamemnon’s wife. You are wrong. Fleshed in the wife of this dead man, the spirit lives within me; our savage ancient spirit of revenge. Clytemnestra says she’s only a fleshed-out spirit doing the will of the gods. They’re merely using her as a tool to accomplish their ends. This is her Fate. We no longer believe things like that. The message of Aeschylus seems to be: too bad for you. The gods will not be denied.