Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

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

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

GOETHE: Faust, Part One

Someone once said the three great themes in life are God, Great Books and Golf. Goethe hits two out of three in his masterpiece Faust. Golf doesn’t play a part in this drama but there’s plenty about God and Great Books. At the start of the play we’re introduced to a situation that’s amazingly similar to The Book of Job. The scene is set in Heaven and the angels are praising the Lord and his creation, all except for Satan. In this play Satan goes by the name Mephistopheles and he doesn’t see what all the fuss is about. What’s so great about life on the planet earth? When he surveys the world he says All I see is how men torment themselves. The little god of the world (man) is still the same, as odd as on the first day. He’d live a little better without his glimmering of heavenly light. He calls it Reason but he uses it to be beastlier than any beast. The Lord approaches Mephistopheles and asks if he knows Faust? The Lord is proud of his servant Faust: He serves me, these days, in bewilderment. But soon I shall lead him into the light… A good man, struggling in his darkness, still knows the one true way. This is too much for Mephistopheles. So they make a wager, just like in The Book of Job. Satan tempts Faust just as he had tempted Job. Only instead of causing Faust to suffer, as he did with Job, Satan will tempt Faust with pleasures. The stage is set for wild and boisterous adventures in places like public taverns and witch’s lairs. There’s plenty of entertainment but entertainment isn’t the primary goal of this play. Goethe has a message to deliver. And he does that well.

Faust is one of the great characters of Western literature. He’s like Shakespeare’s Hamlet in this way: Faust thinks about things and he thinks about them a lot. Faust is a scholar but he’s deeply unhappy. Why? In the opening scene in his study Faust complains: Law, medicine, philosophy and even (worse luck) theology! I’ve studied them all with passionate resolution, and I’ve learned them from top to bottom; now I stand here, poor fool that I am, no wiser than I was before. I am called Master, Doctor even; for ten years, up and down and back and forth, I’ve led my students by the nose. And I see there’s nothing we can know! That’s what eats my heart out. This reminds readers of The Preacher in Ecclesiasates. The Preacher had learned everything, tried everything, and still wasn’t happy. Faust has devoted his whole life to studying the Great Books. He’s learned all there is to learn from the masters. But he hasn’t found what he’s looking for. And what is that? Faust himself isn’t sure and that’s because he’s a complicated man. Lots of guys don’t have that problem. One student sums up his life goals like this: Good strong beer, tobacco with a bite, and a dolled-up housemaid. That’s my style. The simple pleasures in life are fulfillment enough for most people. And Faust wishes he could be satisfied with the simple pleasures but he laments that Two souls, alas, dwell within my breast; each struggling to get free of the other. One, gross and passionate desire, clutches at the world with greedy limbs; the other soars from the dust into the realms of our first lofty fathers. Can two souls dwell within one person? Not peacefully. The student is satisfied with his passionate desires. Faust’s friend Wagner prefers to leave passion behind and let his spirit soar with the help of great books: …One soon sees one’s fill of field and forest. I envy no bird its feathers. How different are the pleasures of the spirit! They bear us from book to book, from page to page! Then winter nights grow bright and beautiful, a blissful light warms every limb, and as you open some wonderful book the heavens themselves descend upon you. Faust is torn between these two approaches. Should he leave his passions behind and follow his intellect? Or should he abandon reason and follow his desires? This isn’t just Faust’s problem. It’s the common human dilemma: how should we live? Faust concludes that Here (in the village) is the people’s real Heaven. Young and old shout their contentment. Here I am, here I dare to be, human.

Monday, September 20, 2010

KAFKA: The Metamorphosis

In many ways Gregor Samsa was just an average guy. He was what we nowadays call a traveling salesman. He lived in a modest but neatly kept apartment with his parents and his sister. Such a life may seem dull to many readers but it was pleasant enough to Gregor. Everything seemed to be going along just fine and the whole family assumed that everything would continue going along just fine into the future. Then all of a sudden Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams and found himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect. That’s not something that happens every day. In fact I don’t know of anyone who’s suddenly been turned into a giant bug. People might have sudden earth-shattering tragedies in their lives. They may get cancer or some incurable disease. Their spouses may leave them. They may lose their jobs or their life savings. But people don’t just turn into bugs for no reason.
So what’s going on here? What are we supposed to make of this story? None of us have ever known (or have even heard of) someone being turned into a bug. There must be some other explanation. One explanation might be that Gregor hasn’t really turned into a bug. The pressures of life just got to be too much of a burden for him and he retreated into the “shell” of his own mind. In other words, maybe Gregor just went crazy. The story is told mostly from Gregor’s own mind. If the people around him were telling the story it may have been quite different: Gregor wasn’t really a bug; he just stopped talking and kept to his room. Then he slowly degenerated and finally died. That would be one interpretation. But I like to take a writer at his word. It’s Kafka’s story. Let him tell it. So let’s assume it happened the way Kafka said.

Where does that leave us? With some interesting problems. First of all Kafka seems to be asking: what is it that makes us human? Is it work? Gregor’s Mom points out her son’s strong work ethic when she tells his boss: Gregor’s not well, sir, believe me. What else would make him miss a train! The boy thinks about nothing but his work. It makes me almost cross the way he never goes out in the evenings; he’s been here the last eight days and has stayed at home every single evening. He just sits there quietly at the table reading a newspaper or looking through railway timetables. To have honorable and fulfilling work is one of the things that make us human. But that may also be Gregor’s primary weakness: he’s a workaholic. Shouldn’t a young man also have some hobbies or other interests outside his routine work life? Besides, our jobs can often make us just another cog in a machine. Gregor’s boss is irritated when he doesn’t show up for work one morning: I thought you were a quiet dependable person and now all at once you seem bent on making a disgraceful exhibition of yourself. The fact is Gregor has turned into a bug. He’s supposed to be a traveling salesman. Who’s going to buy anything from a giant bug? One lesson modern Americans may draw is this: when people lose their jobs how much of their identities do they also lose? Surely work isn’t the only thing that identifies us as members of the human race. Most of us have families and personal interests too. The books we read, the friends we have, the places we live; all of these go into making up our common humanity. Gregor was no different. At one point he starts losing all the personal possessions that make him “Gregor”: He could not account for the fact that he had quite earnestly looked forward to having his room emptied of furnishing. Did he really want his warm room, so comfortably fitted with old family furniture, to be turned into a naked den in which he would certainly be able to crawl unhampered in all directions but at the price of shedding simultaneously all recollection of his human background?... They were clearing his room out; taking away everything he loved… His last glance fell on his mother… Cold hard facts can give us an objective scientific view of life. But stories may be better for showing us human reality. Kafka knew how to tell a good story.

Friday, September 10, 2010

FREUD: On Dreams

This was Freud’s dream: Company at table or table d’hote…spinach was being eaten…Frau E.L. was sitting beside me; she was turning her whole attention to me and laid her hand on my knee in an intimate manner. I removed her hand unresponsively. She then said: “But you’ve always had such beautiful eyes.”…I then had an indistinct picture of two eyes, as though it were a drawing or like the outline of a pair of spectacles. Ok, that’s the dream. The dream itself is what Freud calls the manifest content. But there’s also a deeper meaning which Freud calls the latent content. Freud assures us that by critically pursuing the associations arising from any dream I can arrive at a similar train of thoughts…which are interconnected in a rational and intelligible manner. These interconnected thoughts will disclose the “latent content” of our dreams. Freud’s analysis of his own dream shows that Frau E.L. is the daughter of a man to whom I was once in debt… and Freud concludes that I have always paid dearly for whatever advantage I have had from other people. That’s an interesting interpretation of his dream. But let’s try this method out for ourselves. Let’s see what we can come up with by using Freud’s own method to analyze the same dream. Side note: Freud was Jewish and married the daughter of the chief rabbi in Hamburg. Freud insists that details matter.

So let’s start with the table. What does the table represent in the dream? In Jewish tradition a table is a lot like an altar where sacrifices of food are offered to God. And this isn’t just any old table, it’s a table d’hote. That’s the literal French term for “host’s table.” So Freud is dreaming about dining at a table where someone else is providing the food. Who could the host possibly be? In Jewish tradition Wisdom is sometimes personified in feminine terms. Proverbs 9:2, for example, says She (Wisdom) has prepared a great banquet, mixed the wines, and set the table. Coincidence? Freud says these things are important in analyzing our dreams. Let’s keep going.

A concept that often goes along with table d’hote is the prix fixe menu or “set menu.” Jewish law in Leviticus has very strict regulations about how the altar is to be set up and the food is to be prepared and eaten. Exodus 25:30 states: Put the bread of the Presence on this table to be before me at all times. But Leviticus speaks mostly about animals or grain being offered. In his dream Freud is very specific that it was spinach being eaten. What possible meaning can spinach have? It just so happens that spinach originated in ancient Persia. So? This is close to the ancient city of Ur. So? Abram, the spiritual father of all Jews, was from Ur. Coincidence? Maybe. Spinach is a leafy vegetable and leafy vegetables come from gardens. What’s the most famous garden of all, especially for a Jew? The Garden of Eden. Another coincidence? Maybe. But Freud insists we should pursue the thought associations arising from our dreams. No matter how trivial or coincidental they seem. So let’s go on a little further in our pursuit.

Next let’s consider the significance of Frau E.L. “Frau” is a German word that means woman. In Jewish tradition who’s the first woman? Eve. But the word “Frau” can also mean one’s wife. In Jewish tradition who’s the first wife? That was also Eve. Interesting. But so what? Well this isn’t just any old “Frau.” It’s Frau E.L. So? “El” just happens to be the ancient near Eastern word signifying “God.” For example in Genesis 35:7 we read that Jacob built an altar there and named the place El-bethel (which means "God of Bethel"), because God had appeared to him there. Remember, Freud’s wife is the daughter of a prominent rabbi. Surely Freud would have been familiar with the story in Genesis 3:8: They heard the voice of Yahweh God walking in the garden in the cool of the day, and the man and his wife hid themselves from the presence of Yahweh God among the trees of the garden. Why were they hiding from God? They were ashamed because they had EATEN from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.

In his dream Freud was sitting beside Frau E.L. and says she was turning her whole attention to me and laid her hand on my knee in an intimate manner. She had her whole attention turned to Freud. But why would she put her hand on his knee (especially in an intimate manner)? In Jewish tradition the wisest man who ever lived was King Solomon. In the first Book of Kings we find that when Solomon had made an end of praying all this prayer and supplication to Yahweh, he arose from before the altar of Yahweh, from kneeling on his knees with his hands spread forth toward heaven. Did Freud ever get down on his knees and pray to God as Solomon did? At the beginning of his essay Freud talks about “pre-scientific men” who believed dreams were a manifestation by higher powers, demonic and divine. But Freud’s goal was to bring the psychology of dreams up to the scientific standards of the modern world. To believe in higher powers would undermine his whole program. So when Frau E.L. put her hand on his knee in an intimate manner what was Freud’s response? He says I removed her hand unresponsively. Unresponsive. Interesting. Does that mean Freud was subconsciously rejecting his wife? If so was it because she was a rabbi’s daughter? Or was he rejecting all aggressive women because they’re sexually threatening? Adam wasn’t able to resist Eve in the Garden of Eden. They both ate the fruit from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Was Freud rejecting his Jewish heritage? Was he rejecting God? What would Freud’s father-in-law think about all this? Remember the psychoanalytic method: analysis of dreams isn’t easy and we have to follow the train of thoughts wherever they may lead. Freud’s dream doesn’t end there.

She then said: “But you’ve always had such beautiful eyes.” Why would Frau E.L. pick Freud’s eyes? Why not his hands? Or why not “you’ve always had such a logical mind”? No, it was his eyes that affected her. Why? We see with our eyes; they give us our “vision” of life. If we’re blind we can’t see; like Oedipus the King. But sometimes we can’t see even if we have eyes to see with. Let’s follow this train of thought. In Deuteronomy 9:17 Moses tells his fellow Jews:
I took the stone tablets and threw them to the ground, smashing them before your eyes. God had given Moses two stone tablets to take back to the Jewish people. They contained the Ten Commandments and were supposed to help lift the Jews out of slavery and darkness. Freud’s eyes were beautiful but had he lost that Jewish vision? Had he traded the ancient Hebrew vision for a modern theory of his own: psychoanalysis? If so, his Jewish heritage would no longer sustain Freud. In Job 32:1 we read that these three men gave no more answers to Job, because he seemed to be right in his own eyes. Was Freud so convinced of his own theory that he rejected three thousand years of cumulated Jewish experience? The Jewish holy books seem to have no more answers for Freud. Why? Because Freud seemed to himself to be right in his own eyes. Ironically, the heritage that Freud rejects had confronted the interpretation of dreams over a thousand years ago. It’s nothing new: Daniel 2:6 says if you tell me the dream and its meaning, I will give you gifts, awards, and high honors. Now tell me the dream and its meaning.

Finally, Freud says I then had an indistinct picture of two eyes, as though it were a drawing or like the outline of a pair of spectacles. Maybe “spectacles” form our vision of life. Were the spectacles of psychoanalysis Freud’s best friend or his worst enemy? Psalm 23 paints a beautiful picture and this complicated analysis brings us right back where we started: at the table. It’s almost like a dream: You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies. Coincidence?

Tuesday, September 07, 2010

SHAKESPEARE: All’s Well That Ends Well

Yogi Berra’s philosophy of baseball is “it ain’t over ‘til it’s over.” Shakespeare’s philosophy of comedy is “all’s well that ends well.” In Oedipus the King everything seems to be going well but turns out badly. In All’s Well That Ends Well everything seems to be going badly but turns out well. Here’s how it happened. Helena wants to marry Bertram but he desperately doesn’t want to marry Helena. So Helena cures the King of France from a near-fatal illness and the king promises to give Helena whatever she wants as a reward. She wants Bertram for her husband. Bertram protests: I know her (Helena) well; she had her breeding at my father’s charge; a poor physician’s daughter my wife! Disdain rather corrupt me ever… However, the king has given his word and here’s his response to Bertram: It is in us to plant thine honour where we please to have it grow. In other words, I’m the king and you’re not, so you WILL marry Helena. The king may be able to force him to marry Helena but Bertram says I will not bed her… Not only does Bertram not love Helena, he almost seems to loathe her: Here comes my clog (Helena).

This marriage is not off to a good start. To make matters worse, before Helena has a chance to sleep with him Bertram takes off to Florence to get away from her. But once in Florence a young Italian lady does catch Bertram’s eye: Diana Capulet. He may not want to sleep with Helena but he sure does want to sleep with Diana. What’s up with this guy? Answer: he’s young. Bertram’s mother (a wise Countess) makes this observation: Even so it was with me when I was young: if ever we are nature’s, these are ours; this thorn doth to our rose of youth rightly belong; our blood to us, this to our blood is born: it is the show and seal of nature’s truth, where love’s strong passion is impressed in youth

A dilemma faced by all young folks is who to partner up with. Diana doesn’t want to give up her virginity to Bertram. Helena does. What difference does it make? It makes a lot of difference to the ladies. Not so much to the guys. Bertram’s “friend” Parolles has this little exchange with Helena: PAROLLES: Are you (Helena) meditating on virginity? ... HELENA: Is there no military policy how virgins might blow up men? … PAROLLES: Virginity is peevish, proud, idle, made of self-love; which is the most inhibited sin in the canon. Keep it not… Virginity, like an old courtier, wears her cap out of fashion…your old virginity is like of our French withered pears. Of course this is what many men would say. They have a vested interest in sex. The Clown puts it this way: I am driven on by the flesh; and he must needs go that the devil drives. It’s not love that drives Bertram on with Diana, it’s lust. He doesn’t want to marry her; he just wants to bed her.

Is this the hand of fate or just plain old biology at work? Oedipus was driven by fate in a world brooding with the will of the gods. Helena and Bertram inhabit a world where it’s every man for himself; and every woman too. Helena figures it this way: Our remedies oft in ourselves do lie, which we ascribe to heaven: the fated sky gives us free scope; only doth backward pull our slow designs when we ourselves are dull… The king’s disease, my project may deceive me, but my intents are fixed, and will not leave me. Helena is determined to get Bertram but that’s not the same thing as fate. Success depends almost entirely on her personal efforts, not the will of the gods. With a little help from her friends Helena gets her way. It wasn’t easy and it took a trick or two but when all is said and done Helena has the last word: All’s well that ends well.