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.


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