Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

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

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

SOPHOCLES: Oedipus the King

W. H. Auden begins one of his poems with this observation: About suffering they were never wrong, The Old Masters; how well, they understood its human position; how it takes place while someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along… The Preacher in Ecclesiastes was an Old Master and he knew a thing or two about human suffering. He said To everything there is a season, and a time to every purpose… There’s a time to be happy and a time to suffer. He also assured us that The race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong…but time and chance happeneth to them all. Nobody gets through life without pain.

Sophocles was an Old Master too. Auden was English, The Preacher was Jewish and Sophocles was Greek. But when it comes to human suffering these guys all say essentially the same thing. It doesn’t matter where they come from: time and chance happeneth to them all. If you’re a human being, and you’re alive, you’re going to suffer. It may not be right now, it may not be next week, but until you’ve safely left this life behind you can never be sure that tragedy won’t strike. Sophocles ends his play with these words: Count no man happy till he has passed the final limit of his life secure from pain. Oedipus the King is proof of that. When the play begins Oedipus seemingly has it all. A beautiful wife, healthy children and he’s king of Thebes. The only problem is a stubborn plague that haunts the city. It turns out that a murder was committed and has never been solved. The gods are angry and demand that the murderer be found and driven away from the city as punishment. Then the plague will be lifted. What does this have to do with Oedipus? First of all, he’s the king. People are looking for him to do something. Second, he himself is the murderer. Oedipus just doesn’t know it at first. And it gets worse. The man Oedipus killed was really his father. He just didn’t know it. The woman Oedipus married was really his mother. He just didn’t know it. When Oedipus finds out the truth his whole world is crushed. Oedipus didn’t know a lot about things in his life. The things he held most dearest to him were not what they seemed to be. His lovely wife was also his mother. His beloved children were also his brothers and sisters. When his wife/mother finds out the truth she hangs herself. When Oedipus finds out the truth he blinds himself.

In some ways Sophocles agrees with the Preacher from Ecclesiastes. Sophocles writes: What man on earth wins more of happiness than a seeming and after that turning away? This was the same experience the Preacher had. We try all kinds of things we think will make us happy. The Preacher built gardens and houses and read books and played music and drank wine and loved women. But after awhile everything seemed to lose its glitter and the Preacher would move on to something else. The Preacher finally decided that There is nothing better for a man, than that he should eat and drink, and that he should make his soul enjoy good in his labour. At the beginning of Oedipus the King we hear him bragging about I Oedipus whom all men call the Great. Maybe Oedipus should have taken the Preacher’s advice and let well enough alone. His wife/mother (Jocasta) begged him to do just that: Do not concern yourself about this matter; listen to me and learn that human beings have no part in the craft of prophecy… As far as prophecy goes henceforward I shall not look to the right hand or the left…Best to live lightly, as one can, unthinkingly… I beg you, do not hunt this out, I beg you… Was she right? Is it better sometimes NOT to know the truth and just move on? There’s an old country song by Vern Gosdin called If You’re Gonna Do Me Wrong. The singer has his suspicions that his wife is being unfaithful and says I don’t want to know the truth. Human suffering is the same no matter whether it’s ancient Israel, ancient Greece or a modern honky-tonk bar in Nashville.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

BIBLE: Ecclesiastes

Americans love self-help books. We read tons of books about how to be healthier, how to have better relationships at home or at work, how to succeed in business or parenting or sports. In short, we want to be happy. Before picking up yet another self-help book, most people would be better off to pick up the book of Ecclesiastes. Here are the answers you’ve been looking for. It won’t tell you whether to eat more fiber or change careers or anything like that. But whatever you’re REALLY looking for (deep down inside), you can find it in the pages of this book. Ecclesiastes is like a mirror that reflects back your true self. Here are three possibilities:
(1) Some people think life is just one long struggle: Life’s a bitch, then you die. The Preacher agrees with you: The words of the Preacher, the son of David, king in Jerusalem. Vanity of vanities, saith the Preacher, vanity of vanities; all is vanity. “Vanity” is a word we don’t use much anymore; we would say “meaningless” instead of vanity. So the message here is that life is basically meaningless. Why? There are several reasons but the most important reason is because we’ll end up dying some day, no matter what we do. The Preacher puts it this way: how dieth the wise man? as the fool… that which befalleth the sons of men befalleth beasts; even one thing befalleth them: as the one dieth, so dieth the other; yea, they have all one breath; so that a man hath no preeminence above a beast: for all is vanity. According to the Preacher, no matter how rich we are, or how good-looking, or how wise, we’re all gonna die. So put away your self-help books, they won’t do you any good in the end.
(2) This message is too bleak for some people. You may be one of those who point out that there are many bad things in life, but there are a lot of good things too. Life’s a mixture of good and bad. We just take them as they come. The Preacher agrees with you. He writes a famous poem about it: To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven: A time to be born, and a time to die… There you have it. We may die some day but in the meantime there’s a life to be lived. So accept it for what it is. Sometimes you’ll be sad, sometimes you’ll be happy. The Preacher goes on to say that there’s A time to weep, and a time to laugh;… a time to mourn, and a time to dance;… A time to love, and a time to hate; a time of war, and a time of peace…A time to kill, and a time to heal… The thing about life is not so much HOW to do something, but WHEN to do it. You won’t find those answers in self-help books.
(3) Finally there are people who think both of those views are wrong. You may believe that as long as you’re alive there’s hope and if nothing else you should at least be happy in that fact. The Preacher agrees with you too: For to him that is joined to all the living there is hope: for a living dog is better than a dead lion. For the living know that they shall die: but the dead know not anything… Things may not be going too well right now but at least I’m not dead. That’s a start. This is a very simple approach to life: There is nothing better for a man, than that he should eat and drink, and that he should make his soul enjoy good in his labour. This also I saw, that it was from the hand of God. The simple things in life are best. Enjoy good food, do your work well, praise God. Let everything else be. No self-help book is necessary.

So where does that leave us? Do you think life is pointless? Well, you’re right, it is. Do you think life is really more of a mixture of good and bad things all jumbled up together? Well, you’re right too. Do you think there really is a purpose to life and that it’s always a treasure and a blessing? Guess what, you’re also right. Don’t like these answers or think they can’t all be right? Too bad for you. The Preacher says If the tree fall toward the south, or toward the north, in the place where the tree falleth, there it shall be. If you don’t like where the tree fell, then too bad for you. Vanity of vanities, saith the preacher; all is vanity. He was a wise man.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

GOGOL: The Overcoat

Akaky didn’t ask much out of life: a small apartment, a job copying documents, and for supper maybe some cabbage soup followed by beef and onions. Was that too much to ask? There was just one thing missing. Akaky’s old coat was almost literally worn out. It was hanging by a thread, which let the cold wind blow through. And it gets cold in Russia, very cold. He would have been perfectly satisfied to have his old coat repaired. But the tailor said no way, the old coat was beyond repair. Akaky would definitely need a new overcoat. Here’s the problem: it took nearly all of Akaky’s money just to pay his bills. He didn’t have enough left over at the end of the month to buy a new coat. But by scrimping and saving and going without food and light and heat for weeks and weeks, Akaky finally came up with the money and had an elegant new overcoat custom made for him. The day his new overcoat was delivered was the biggest day of Akaky’s life. He was so proud of it that his co-workers invited him over for a celebration party that very night. Akaky attended the party and got a little drunk. On the way home two thugs beat him up and stole his overcoat. He reported it to the police but nothing came of it. Akaky never recovered. Not long after the robbery he got sick and died.

What kind of story is this? I mean, it’s sad and all that, but what’s it got to do with me? I live in modern America and I have an overcoat, two or three of them in fact. So why should I care? I should care because good literature is universal. We don’t have copyists in modern America. We have copy machines and computer printers to do that sort of thing. But we do still have plenty of low-paid people slaving away at menial jobs in cubicles all across the country. And many of them go home at night alone to their small apartments. Their dinners may not be cabbage soup with beef and onions. More likely it’s a frozen dinner from the microwave. And they may not spend their leisure hours copying text, as Akaky did after supper at home. The modern American version would be watching TV or reading a book or surfing the Internet. What makes these modern American types any different from Akaky? Some minor details may have changed but the basic human type has changed very little. There are still plenty of people like Akaky around. You may know one or two of them yourself. You may even BE one of them yourself. I may take a good look at my own life and say to myself: I’m actually kind of lazy, just like Akaky. And I’m getting kind of dull, just like Akaky. But I like my life the way it is and I really don’t want to change, just like Akaky. Of course in modern America it’s drilled into us that “Change Is Good” and we believe it. Few people ever stop to ask: why is change good? Things aren’t perfect, but why aren’t they good enough the way they are? Why not leave well enough alone? In this story we find that Akaky worked with love. There, in his copying, he found an interesting, pleasant world for himself. It may have been a dull job for most people, but not for Akaky. One of his supervisors once tried to give Akaky higher-paying and more interesting work, but Akaky hated it. All he wanted to do was copy simple text. He didn’t want to give it a new heading and change some of the verbs. Copying plain text was an interesting, pleasant world for Akaky to live in. Besides, when everyone else was trying to have a good time, Akaky Akakievich was not even thinking of diverting himself…Having written to his heart’s content he would go to bed smiling in anticipation of tomorrow, of what God would send him to copy. Is this what Aristotle calls arête (excellence)? No. Is this the kind of citizen The Federalist has in mind for America? No. There’s a fundamental classical Greek and American belief that people can change and improve their lives. But if we try to forcibly change a man like Akaky, he protests: Let me be. Why do you do this to me? Is it possible in the modern world to say: I prefer not to change, just let me be? To find out, read Herman Melville’s Bartleby.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

SHAKESPEARE: Twelfth Night

Twelfth Night has a simple plot in a very complex sort of way. A pair of twins (one brother, one sister) get shipwrecked off the coast of Illyrium. (Pop quiz: where is Illyrium? Pop answer: Illyrium is the name of the coastal area of what is now called Croatia.) Both tiwns believe the other one has drowned but in reality they both survived. To protect herself from marauding sailors and soldiers the twin sister (Viola) disguises herself as a young soldier. Strange as it may seem she looks exactly like her twin brother (Sebastian) when she dresses up like a man. Meanwhile Illyrium’s ruler, Duke Orsino, has been trying to woo a local Duchess named Olivia. Olivia doesn’t want anything to do with Orsino and insults him almost daily. So Orsino gets a young soldier named Cesario (who is actually Viola dressed up in men’s clothes) to go woo Olivia for him. Strange as it may seem Olivia falls in love with Cesario/Viola. Are you following this so far? There’s a subplot where a prudish butler named Malvolio is undone by Olivia’s maid named Maria, and Maria’s lover named Sir Toby Belch. Long story short: by the end of the play Olivia hooks up with Sebastian, Viola hooks up with Duke Orsino, Malvolio is made out to be a fool and Maria runs off with Sir Toby. End of play. Neat plot, huh?

What are we supposed to make of all this? Easy analysis: this was just a weird case of mistaken identity. Shakespeare gave a subtitle to this play called “Or, What you will.” That doesn’t help much. This is a play that appeals to modern audiences for a number of reasons. There’s a certain amount of gender-bending going on throughout the play. Olivia has fallen in love with another woman (Viola) but thinks she’s fallen in love with a man (Cesario). Duke Orsino thinks he’s just being good buddies with a young soldier (Cesario) but really it’s a romantic relationship with a woman. Viola doesn’t want to be Duke Orsino’s good buddy; she wants to be his wife. By the end of the play everything works out. Olivia marries Sebastian and Viola marries Duke Orsino. But here’s a question: does Olivia really love Sebastian, or does she love “Cesario”? Is the Duke really in love with Viola, or was he happy just being good buddies with “Cesario”?

Another theme that appeals to modern viewers is the undoing of Malvolio. Malvolio is the prude in this play and modern folks love to expose “hypocrisy”. Malvolio’s constantly trying to get Sir Toby to straighten up and fly right. To be fair, Sir Toby could use some straightening up. He’s a loud, obnoxious drunkard. Even Maria tells him …you must confine yourself within the modest limits of order. But Sir Toby likes to get drunk and act like a teenager. And he likes to get his buddies Sir Andrew and Fabian and the Clown to go along with his juvenile antics: Thou art a scholar; let us therefore eat and drink. Malvolio tries to get Sir Toby to act more like a gentleman but Sir Toby is having none of that and replies to Malvolio: Dost thou think because thou art virtuous there shall be no more cakes and ale? To be fair, Malvolio is an unbearable snob himself. He tells Sir Toby and his bunch: Go hang yourselves all! You are idle shallow things: I am not of your element. If pride goeth before the fall, then here’s a man who is ripe for a fall. So Maria uses a trick love letter to make Malvolio out to be a fool. And it works. Malvolio falsely believes Olivia loves him and so makes a fool of himself. Socrates defined justice as every man getting what he deserves. Is justice served in this play? Do people get what they deserve? Olivia taunts Duke Orsino but ends up with Sebastian anyway. Viola tricks Duke Orsino but ends up marrying him anyway. Maria tricks Malvolio with a fake love letter and Sir Toby sticks to his alcoholic ways; they end up running off together anyway. Is this what Socrates meant by justice? What would he have to say about these characters? Ironically, only the foolish Malvolio would give two hoots what Socrates thinks. The others could care less.