Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

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

Monday, November 28, 2011

CHEKHOV: Rothschild’s Fiddle 2011

The Great Books cover great and enduring ideas: life and death, war and peace, God, government, good and evil. It doesn’t seem like they would cover common and ordinary topics; these would be unworthy subjects for great and noble literature. Not so. The Great Books have a great deal to say about common life: relationships between husbands and wives or friends and neighbors. The Great Books also talk about earning a living, how to spend our leisure time, what hobbies or activities would be useful, why we should have good health care. War and peace are truly great and worthy topics. But most of us don’t command armies and countries. We run small businesses or individual households and get up and go to work every morning. The first selection in the Adult Great Books series deals with running a small business and getting up to go to work every morning. Rothschild’s Fiddle is a good story to begin our readings in the Great Books tradition. Why? In the book of Genesis we read that Therefore shall a man leave his father and his mother, and shall cleave unto his wife: and they shall be one flesh. This is a basic foundation of western society. But in Rothschild’s Fiddle we learn that a coffin-maker named Jacob has not cleaved unto his wife: he had never shown her any affection all his life. Never had he been kind to her; never had thought of buying her a kerchief or brining her sweetmeats from a wedding. All he had done was yell at her and blame her for his losses… Jacob’s relationship to his wife Martha does not follow the pattern established in Genesis for the proper relationship between husbands and wives. And Jacob hasn’t failed only in his relationship to his wife. He’s also mean-spirited to his neighbors, particularly a Jewish musician named Rothschild. Jacob does do some good things. He makes good coffins. But in the next reading selection (On Happiness) Aristotle says good seems to be self-sufficient. However, we define something as self-sufficient not by reference to the “self” alone. We do not mean a man who lives his life in isolation, but a man who also lives with parents, children, a wife, and friends and fellow citizens generally, since man is by nature a social and political being. Jacob doesn’t depend on other people to support him in his business. He makes his own coffins and sells them. But he does depend on other people for social relationships. This is what makes him human. Aristotle points out that when Jacob is being mean-spirited to his wife he’s destroying his own household; when he’s being mean-spirited to Rothschild he’s destroying his community. It’s not that Jacob isn’t a productive worker. He is. He makes good coffins and sells them at an affordable price. But Jacob doesn’t seem to be able to draw a line where his work life ends and his personal life begins. An example from the story: As he said good-bye to Martha for the last time he touched the coffin. “Good workmanship, that,” he thought. His wife has just died and Jacob is admiring the quality of the coffin he made for her. Another Great Books author, Karl Marx, calls this sort of outlook “alienated labor.” That’s when our work isn’t a part of who we really are. As Marx explains: What constitutes the alienation of work? The work is EXTERNAL to the worker, it is not part of his nature; he does not fulfill himself in his work but denies himself… It is not the satisfaction of a need but only a means for satisfying other needs. Its alien character is clearly shown by the fact that as soon as there is no physical or other compulsion it is avoided like the plague. Some Great Books authors disagree and say that work is an important component of what makes us human. We need to develop our skills and talents in order to improve our human capacities. But Marx’s point is that Jacob was a coffin maker only because he had to earn a living. It’s not something he chose to do because he enjoyed doing it. And that may have been what made him so mean-spirited. God, government, good and evil are a few of the topics that make up the Great Books. But this story also includes simple pleasures: music and food and weddings and dogs. Chekhov shows that Great Books are for ordinary readers.

Monday, November 21, 2011

DELMORE SCHWARTZ: In Dreams Begin Responsibilities 2011

Let’s deal with a very basic question first. Does this story belong in an anthology with writers like Aristotle, Plato, Kant, Locke and Sophocles? The answer may depend on the taste of the reader answering the question. This set of readings also includes more modern writers like John Dewey, Mary Lavin, and Virginia Woolf. Readers who dislike modern literature will definitely prefer Plato and Sophocles over John Dewey and Virginia Woolf. But readers who tend to like modern literature will be drawn into this story immediately: I think it is the year 1909… It is Sunday afternoon, June 12th, 1909… It is obviously Sunday. We’re plunged into the middle of a specific time and a specific place. This would be a satisfactory start for a story even according to an ancient classic dramatist like Sophocles. But in this story we’re also plunged right into the middle of a film. Actually the narrator is telling us a STORY about watching a film about his parents. No, he’s actually telling us a story that he’s DREAMING about watching a film about his parents. So we’re twice-removed from the subject itself: the narrator’s parents. Or, is the subject of this story really the narrator himself? This kind of wavering back and forth would make Sophocles frown. The theme about his parents is fine. Sophocles himself once wrote a play called Oedipus the King about parents and children and a dysfunctional family. But the film part would probably make Sophocles uneasy. He would wonder: where does the film end and reality begin? It’s precisely what we should ask ourselves when we read modern fiction. In a nutshell this is the question for modern literature and film: where’s the boundary between the writer’s consciousness and the real world? The narrator in this story says I am anonymous, and I have forgotten myself. It is always so when one goes to the movies, it is, as they say, a drug. But the narrator has certainly NOT forgotten himself. In a certain sense this story is ONLY about the narrator. The scenes with the mother and father courting are merely reflections of the writer’s own consciousness. This is the way he perceives the characters. But we have no way of knowing if this is the way the characters perceive themselves. When we see Oedipus on stage we feel as if we understand what Oedipus himself is thinking. We don’t have a third party or narrator interpreting Oedipus for us. Oedipus speaks for himself. But in this story it’s the storyteller describing his family: My father thinks of my mother, of how nice it will be to introduce her to his family. But he is not yet sure that he wants to marry her…. My grandfather is worried; he is afraid that my father will not make a good husband for his oldest daughter… My mother feels satisfied by the interest which she has awakened; she is showing my father how intelligent she is, and how interesting. We want to take him at his word. It’s his family, he should know. And yet we have to remember that he’s only telling us about a dream about watching a film about his family. It might not be true at all. It might not be what he really thinks at all. It’s only a film. It’s only a dream. Or it might be the way things really are. Take your pick. This is the kind of plot that would drive Sophocles crazy. He was a Greek: say what you mean so the audience can understand you. Be a reliable storyteller. In this story the narrator may not be a very reliable storyteller. When he’s not reciting “factual” anecdotes he says things like this: I stare at the terrible sun which breaks up the sight, and the fatal, merciless, passionless ocean, I forget my parents. I stare fascinated and finally, shocked by the indifference of my father and mother, I burst out weeping once more. The old lady next to me pats me on the shoulder and says “There, there, all of this is only a movie, young man, only a movie.” For the old lady and the young man it may be a movie but for the parents it was reality. And for the reader it’s just a story. This is clever literature. But is it great literature? Time will tell. The classics last; cleverness isn’t enough. Sophocles may ask modern writers the same thing this narrator asked about his parents: What are they doing? Don’t they know what they’re doing?

Saturday, November 12, 2011

VIRIGINA WOOLF: A Room of One’s Own 2011

After reading Virginia Woolf’s essay about A Room of One’s Own it’s tempting to think of the battle of the sexes as a relatively modern phenomenon. It is not. Even a casual glance at Great Books readings tells us that the battle of the sexes began early on. In fact, it began at the very beginning with Adam and Eve in the book of Genesis. The earliest reading in the Great Books other than the Bible is Homer’s Iliad. It’s a war story but what is the conflict really about? A woman. The Trojans had taken Helen and the Greeks came to take her back. The poem begins with a quarrel between the commanding general, Agamemnon, and the best fighter, Achilles. What were they arguing about? A woman. Shakespeare’s plays are full of the interplay between masculine and feminine powers: Macbeth and Lady Macbeth, Othello and Desdemona, Romeo and Juliet, the list goes on and on. And one of the most engaging Great Books readings has to be the Wife of Bath’s Tale. She summarizes in great detail the primary interest of most human beings: trying to figure out the opposite sex. So with this background in mind Virginia Woolf is really just carrying on the latest installment of a long conversation in Western literature about relationships between men and women. She asks Why did men drink wine and women water? Why was one sex so prosperous and the other so poor? Back in those days Woolf didn’t have the Internet so she had to go to the library. This seems logical: …If truth is not to be found on the shelves of the British Museum, where, I asked myself, picking up a notebook and a pencil, is truth? This is a good question. Where can we find the truth? In the library? That’s where Woolf starts. But she is soon overwhelmed by the sheer number of books about women. She does find out something very interesting though: Have you any notion of how many books are written about women in the course of one year? Have you any notion how many are written by men? Here’s something we might not have guessed: most of the books written about women are written by men. At least it seemed that way to Woolf. Of course, until recently it would be just as true to say that most of the books written are written by men; whether the subject was women or anything else. She goes on to say that …Women do not write books about men… Why are women, judging from this catalogue, so much more interesting to men than men are to women? That’s interesting too. Men write books about women but women don’t write books about men. If that’s true then Woolf may be on to something. If it’s not true then she may be reading and thinking too much. Woolf lived in an age fascinated by Freudian theory and this may have influenced her whole outlook on life, for better or for worse. She writes that it is in our idleness, in our dreams, that the submerged truth sometimes comes to the top. A very elementary exercise in psychology, not to be dignified by the name of psychoanalysis, showed me, on looking at my notebook, that the sketch of the angry professor had been made in anger. Woolf does a simple psychoanalysis of herself and it turns out that deep inside she’s angry. Is there such a thing as “submerged truth” that only comes to the top in idleness and dreams? Maybe; maybe not. But here’s a more practical question: are we better off going to work every day and earning a living like most people, or would we be better off with a fixed income so we would have time to ponder the great questions of life? Woolf says that Society gives me chicken and coffee, bed and lodging, in return for a certain number of pieces of paper… Money buys us the things we need to survive. How do we get money? To begin with, always to be doing work that one did not wish to do, and to do it like a slave… was not something Woolf wanted. Do any of us? Who wants to work like a slave at a job they don’t enjoy? In the end she notes that …it is remarkable, what a change of temper a fixed income will bring about. No force in the world can take from me my five hundred pounds. Food, house and clothing are mine forever. This was a liberating experience for her, not just materially but psychologically. She could have a room of her own.