Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

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

Saturday, July 30, 2011

GOGOL: The Overcoat (2011)

Psychologist William James was aware of the power our habits exert on us. He once wrote that (Habit) alone prevents the hardest and most repulsive walks of life from being deserted by those brought up to tread therein. It keeps the fisherman and the deck-hand at sea through the winter; it holds the miner in his darkness, and nails the countryman to his log-cabin and his lonely farm through all the months of snow… This is a good theory but how well does it work in practice? Gogol’s short story about a poor office clerk and his new overcoat provides us a good way to find out. Reading the story through the prism of James’ theory can give us new insight into the way we live. To start with, let’s look at the office clerk’s name. His name was Akaky Akakievich. Many people start out life with unfortunate names. Take Benny Benson, for example. Benny was the guy who designed the territorial flag for Alaska when he won the flag contest for students in grades 7 through 12. Or consider the guy who defeated General Custer at the battle of Little Big Horn. His name was Crazy Horse. Some men become famous after changing their names. Fred Astaire started out life as Frederick Austerlitz. Louis L'Amour began as Louis Dearborn LaMoore. And Yogi Berra was really Lawrence Peter Berra. Lesson one: names don’t matter as much as character. So the second lesson is this: Benny and Crazy and Fred and Louis and Yogi were industrious men who took advantage of their gifts and talents. Not so with Akaky: 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. All Akaky wanted was to be left in peace so he could do his job copying official government documents. He was the lowest-ranking clerk in the office and had no desire to advance up the promotional latter. Why not? He didn’t need a promotion because he didn’t want all the normal things that most people want. He never gave a thought to his clothes… Never did he pay any attention to what was going on around him in the street… He never noticed the taste (of his food)… Akaky lived in a small apartment a few blocks from his office in the city. He had everything he needed. He was content doing what he was doing. So why take on more responsibilities to earn more money to buy more stuff that he didn’t need anyway? Which brings us to a third lesson this story can teach: no man is an island. Akaky lived alone. That’s ok, lots of people live alone. But Akaky rarely went outside his own little world. He would go to work in the morning, work all day, and then return to his tiny apartment in the evening. He never went out at night. It was a habit that he followed day after day, year after year. This is where William James’ habit-theory is helpful. Akaky’s work habits were good. But those same habits rendered him utterly unable to cope with any slight deviation in his life. The simple fact that Akaky needed a new overcoat caused his whole world to come crashing down. When the tailor told him that his old overcoat couldn’t be patched any more this was the reaction: At the word “new” Akaky Akakievich’s vision became foggy and the whole room began to sway. There are similar examples today. Akaky wouldn’t even have a job in modern America. We have copy machines that work faster, better and cheaper than any human copyist can. So where does someone like Akaky fit into a modern American workplace? There are still office clerks all over the country. But Akaky was totally unfit to do things like provide good customer service over the telephone. He couldn’t even speak to people in a normal manner. Akaky was incapable of fulfilling quotas. The mere thought of pressure made him break out in a cold sweat. Imagine a contemporary middle-aged worker with limited technology skills. They’ve just been informed they’re being laid off from a job they’ve been doing for decades. What’s the normal reaction? Akaky Akakievich’s vision became foggy and the whole room began to sway. William James had it right: habits form the person.

Saturday, July 23, 2011


"Habit a second nature! Habit is ten times nature," the Duke of Wellington is said to have exclaimed. Wellington was a successful military commander who knew how to turn out good soldiers. William James was a psychologist and his job was to turn out good people. James was in full agreement with Wellington on the importance of developing good habits. He says that no one can probably appreciate as well as one who is a veteran soldier himself. The daily drill and the years of discipline end by fashioning a man completely over again… That’s why military service begins with boot camp. The goal is to take ordinary people and change their “bad” civilian habits and produce good soldiers, sailors or Marines. For better or worse, all of us are creatures of habit. Is that a good thing? On one hand, habit dooms us all to fight out the battle of life upon the lines of our nurture or our early choice, and to make the best of a pursuit that disagrees, because there is no other for which we are fitted, and it is too late to begin again. Most of our habits developed in early stages of life and then stick with us for years to come. We aren’t aware of the power habits hold over us. Many times, for example, we think we’re in full control of our desires. We say to ourselves: I can quit drinking whenever I want, or I can quit smoking whenever I want, or I can quit (fill in the blank) whenever I want. So we decide to quit. Then to our astonishment we fail. We find that it isn’t as easy to quit as we thought it would be. Our habits are stronger than our willpower. This is bad. But there’s also a good side that James points out: Habit is thus the enormous fly-wheel of society, its most precious conservative agent… It alone prevents the hardest and most repulsive walks of life from being deserted by those brought up to tread therein. It keeps the fisherman and the deck-hand at sea through the winter; it holds the miner in his darkness, and nails the countryman to his log-cabin and his lonely farm through all the months of snow… This doesn’t sound inspiring. It sounds like habits are keeping us chained in misery because that’s what we’re used to. For William James this isn’t necessarily bad. He believes that On the whole, it is best he should not escape. It is well for the world that in most of us, by the age of thirty, the character has set like plaster, and will never soften again. If the period between twenty and thirty is the critical one in the formation of intellectual and professional habits, the period below twenty is more important still for the fixing of personal habits… We have our jobs to do. We have our station in life. We have our duties to fulfill. Habit helps us to do that. It prepares us to take our place in the adult world. We just need to be educated in the right kind of way. James believes that the great thing, then, in all education, is to make our nervous system our ally instead of our enemy. Getting up early and going to work every morning is an adult activity. Kids don’t do it naturally. So we have to train them to get used to it. We all have to become habituated to work. It doesn’t come naturally. Most people don’t wake up every morning and ask themselves: should I go on working or should I quit my job and become a homeless nomad? Their minds were made up long ago to get a job and have a home. That’s what people do. It’s a habit of our culture. William James thinks this habit makes life better: There is no more miserable human being than one in whom nothing is habitual but indecision… If there be such daily duties not yet ingrained in any one of my readers, let him begin this very hour to set the matter right. Setting the matter right may be easier said than done. Anyone who’s ever tried to break a bad habit, especially a long-standing bad habit, knows how hard it can be. We get used to living a certain way and changing is hard. James points out that Men grown old in prison have asked to be readmitted after being once set free. They find it easier to go on living in prison rather than adjust to freedom in the outside world. In the same way, sometimes we become imprisoned in our own habits. James’ advice is this: if we have to live in a prison made out of our own habits, better to make them good ones.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

TOLSTOY: After the Ball

There’s a line from Plato’s Phaedrus lifted for the modern novel Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: “What is good, Phaedrus? And what is not good? Need we ask anyone to tell us these things?” That’s a good question. Do we need someone to tell us what “good” is? Can anyone, in fact, tell us what is good? In Tolstoy’s After the Ball the narrator starts his story this way: you say that a man cannot, by himself, understand what is good and evil… What a way to begin a story. We’re knee-deep in philosophy right out of the gate. Ordinary people don’t normally think about good and evil, much less whether we’re able to know it on our own. We just navigate our way through life picking up a little philosophy here and there along the way. But real philosophers ask questions. Sometimes they even try to answer them too. The novelist’s job isn’t the same as the philosopher’s job. Novelists try to show us new worlds and take us places we’ve never been before. This might include some physical geographical place we’ve never been, such as Russia. Or a story may just take us some place where we’ve never been within our own minds. After the Ball does both. The story is set in nineteenth-century Russia; upper class, militaristic Russia. Except for the details the story could have been set most anywhere. The general theme is about a young man named Ivan and how his boyish innocence becomes infected because of exposure to the darker side of life. The sub-theme is: a man cannot, by himself, understand what is good and evil… But a man might understand what evil is if it’s right in front of his nose. In this case, a soldier is being badly beaten by his comrades because he attempted to desert from the army. The punishment in Russia at that time was to “run the gauntlet” by letting fellow soldiers line up on both sides and then beat the deserter into a bloody pulp. Ivan sees this happening. The question in his mind becomes: isn’t it evil to beat your brother soldier senseless? How can this happen? Ivan wonders if the soldiers all know something that he doesn’t know. It must somehow be ok to punish deserters this way. Why else would the authorities let it happen? On the other hand, brutally beating another human being for any reason seems downright evil. The military commander might say: no, it’s not evil; firm discipline is necessary in a military unit. Tolerating deserters would be a worse evil than the punishment. Corporal punishment preserves the greater good of law and order within the army. So how does a sensitive young man like Ivan come to terms with the competing claims of good and evil? Some people believe that it is all environment, the environment swamps the man. Our cultural environment is our primary teacher and ultimately determines how we classify some things as good and other things as bad. The way to make young people good is to change their social conditions and educate them to appreciate the good, the true and the beautiful. In Ivan’s Russia desertion was bad, very bad. The way to make good soldiers is to enforce military rules with harsh discipline. Ivan understands this viewpoint but still says I believe it is all chance. (Thus spoke our excellent friend, Ivan Vasilievich, after a conversation between us on the impossibility of improving individual character without a change of the conditions under which men live…) Ivan’s whole life wasn’t changed by a government-sponsored program. It was changed because he just happened to witness one incident of harsh military discipline; purely by accident. Is it possible that one little incident can change a man’s whole life? Ivan himself says Yes; such chances arise, and they alter and direct a man's whole life… This attitude sounds a little bit like the ancient Greek concept of Fate, but with a twist: Fate is written in stone and can’t be altered, even by Zeus. Chance is arbitrary; a whole life can be changed in the blink of an eye. For Tolstoy good and evil never change. Ivan found this out when he heard the soldier crying: 'Brothers, have mercy on me! Brothers, have mercy on me!' But the brothers had no mercy… Tolstoy asks the reader: do we really need anyone to tell us that this is not good?

Monday, July 11, 2011

TOCQUEVILLE: "Why Americans Are Often So Restless" from Democracy in America

What kind of people are Americans? One of the most astute observers of American character was actually a French writer named Alexis de Tocqueville. His travels in America took place around 1830 but his comments have held up pretty well throughout the years. Tocqueville starts out this section by saying that in certain remote corners of the Old World you may still stumble upon a small district that seems to have been forgotten amid the general tumult, and to have remained stationary while everything around it was in motion. The Old World was Europe of the early 19th century and time seems to have passed them by. Things have changed in a couple of hundred years. But Tocqueville goes on to observe that the inhabitants, for the most part, are extremely ignorant and poor; they take no part in the business of the country and are frequently oppressed by the government, yet their countenances are generally placid and their spirits light. Here’s the point: these people had nothing. They had few civil rights. And yet they were fairly happy and content. Now Tocqueville shifts the scene: In America I saw the freest and most enlightened men placed in the happiest circumstances that the world affords; it seemed to me as if a cloud habitually hung upon their brow, and I thought them serious and almost sad, even in their pleasures. Those folks in the oppressed backwater were generally content with their lot in life. Americans had more freedoms than any other people in the world and yet they still weren’t happy. Why was this? Tocqueville says the chief reason for this contrast is that the former (the poor peasants) do not think of the ills they endure, while the latter (the freedom-loving Americans) are forever brooding over advantages they do not possess. In short, Americans had more freedom and more material possessions than people living in other countries, but that wasn’t enough. They spent a lot of time thinking about the things they didn’t have. Question: have things changed? Do Americans still want more than they have right now? Of course we do. Just watch television or surf the Internet and you’ll see all kinds of ads selling all kinds of things that Americans don’t have. Americans want the good life. And this is what makes us restless. This is what keeps us restless. We’re never satisfied. We’re continually wanting bigger and better. Is this a good thing or a bad thing? On the positive side it could inspire people to achieve excellence. On the down side it could make people resentful because they don’t have as much as they think they deserve. This attitude also tends to make people even more restless. Tocqueville notes that in the United States a man builds a house in which to spend his old age, and he sells it before the roof is on… Americans tend to go where the grass is greener… He plants a garden and lets it just as the trees are coming into bearing; he brings a field into tillage and leaves other men to gather the crops… obviously Americans don’t like to plant deep roots. He embraces a profession and gives it up… changing careers is in our DNA. If his private affairs leave him any leisure, he instantly plunges into the vortex of politics… Are politics any less important to Americans now than they were in 1832? And if at the end of a year of unremitting labor he finds he has a few days' vacation, his eager curiosity whirls him over the vast extent of the United States, and he will travel fifteen hundred miles in a few days to shake off his happiness. Oh yes, Americans love their vacation time. And a lot of times they come back home more tired than they were when they left. Are these observations wrong or are they generally true of Americans, even today? They say that America is the land of opportunity. For a young man an easy and unbounded career seems open to his ambition and he will readily persuade himself that he is born to no common destiny. But this is an erroneous notion, which is corrected by daily experience. Most young men won’t become rich and famous. But some will. That’s what makes America, America. The possibility is always there. And that’s what keeps Americans restless. Still, Tocqueville liked America. And he liked Americans too.

SHAKESPEARE: The Winter’s Tale

The Winter’s Tale starts off like a dark tragedy along the lines of Othello. One of the ill-fated characters says it best: A sad tale's best for winter… And it seems as if we’re settling in for a long, sad winter’s tale; something like the tragedy experienced by Othello. But halfway through the play a character named “Time” steps in and sixteen years have magically flown by. Then the play takes a sharp turn into something more along the lines of Much Ado About Nothing. Strange things start to happen: a queen who has been “dead” these past sixteen years has been memorialized in a statue. And the statue looks so real that it seems, well, like a real woman; just like the real queen. Surprise! Because it is real! It is the queen! The queen hadn’t been dead after all! She was just faking it until the king came back to his senses. This comeback is sort of like the plot line in Much Ado About Nothing where a young woman “returns” to life after her fiancé jilted her and then later came to regret it. So how does the combination of Othello and Much Ado work out? It works well for some readers, not so much for others. If we’re willing to suspend disbelief and enter into a theatrical world of wonders such as Shakespeare portrays in A Midsummer Night’s Dream then the play works just fine. But if we prefer plays that stick closer to reality (think Julius Caesar) then this plot seems contrived and unbelievable. However, Shakespeare always has some pearls of wisdom up his sleeve. Even if we don’t like the play there are always little nuggets of philosophy to mull over. Here are a couple of little nuggets from Winter’s Tale: Two lads that thought there was no more behind But such a day to-morrow as to-day, And to be boy eternal… We were as twinned lambs that did frisk i' the sun, And bleat the one at the other: what we changed Was innocence for innocence; we knew not The doctrine of ill-doing, nor dreamed That any did. When these two lads were young the whole world seemed innocent. They never dreamed of doing anything evil themselves and never dreamed that there were bad people out there who might hurt them. In today’s terms they were sheltered. So what happened to Leontes and Polixenes? They grew up and went on to became kings of Sicily and Bohemia. But we don’t have to become kings or queens to learn that there’s evil in the world. Ordinary people learn soon enough that there are, in fact, bad people out there who are up to no good. They will hurt you. Be wary of them. Here’s another little life lesson from Shakespeare: What's gone and what's past help Should be past grief. We all grow up eventually and have to confront the evils we find around us. Through determination or sheer luck most of us grow up to become adults and take our place in an adult’s world. Not all of us make it. Some fall by the wayside because of disease, accident, war or murder. The rest of us have to keep on going through life as best we know how. We do all we can to help our families and friends along the way. But there comes a point where there’s nothing more that we can do. That’s when we have to let go of the past and move on. Sometimes this is a bitter lesson. Shakespeare captures the human dilemma in a little story: There may be in the cup A spider steeped, and one may drink, depart, And yet partake no venom, for his knowledge Is not infected: but if one present Th' abhorred ingredient to his eye, make known How he hath drunk, he cracks his gorge, his sides, With violent hefts. I have drunk, and seen the spider. Does that mean it’s better for us to “drink and see the spider”? Should we acknowledge the dark side of life or are there some things that it’s just better for us not to know? Perhaps the tough-minded want to know and the tender-minded want to let it go. One thing we should keep in mind: Shakespeare isn’t a philosopher, he writes plays. He wants to entertain us, not make us into little philosophers. If Plato writes a dialogue and it doesn’t enlighten us then Plato has failed as a philosopher. If The Winter’s Tale doesn’t entertain then Shakespeare has failed as a dramatist. But this play has another subtle message: spend your time wisely. Reading Plato and Shakespeare is always time well spent.