Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

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

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

SWIFT: Gulliver’s Travels (Death and the Great Books)

Gulliver learns a lot from a fantastic species of horses known as Houyhnhnms. They are super-rational creatures. This is the “rational” Houyhnhnm approach to death: If they can avoid casualties, they die only of old age, and are buried in the obscurest places that can be found, their friends and relations expressing neither joy nor grief at their departure; nor does the dying person discover the least regret that he is leaving the world, any more than if he were upon returning home from a visit to one of his neighbours. I remember my master having once made an appointment with a friend and his family to come to his house, upon some affair of importance: on the day fixed, the mistress and her two children came very late; she made two excuses, first for her husband, who, as she said, happened that very morning to shnuwnh. The word is strongly expressive in their language, but not easily rendered into English; it signifies, "to retire to his first mother." Her excuse for not coming sooner, was, that her husband dying late in the morning, she was a good while consulting her servants about a convenient place where his body should be laid; and I observed, she behaved herself at our house as cheerfully as the rest. She died about three months after.

Is this the way human beings act? Houyhnhnms express neither joy nor grief at their departure. This should lead us to reflect on the human way of dying. Here are some readings in the Great Books series that deal with the universal issue of death and dying.

Series One
Chekhov: Rothschild’s Fiddle - A Russian coffin maker reflects on his wasted life.
Conrad: Heart of Darkness - The very talented Kurtz dies in the backwaters of Africa.
Bible: Genesis - Ye shall not eat of it, neither shall ye touch it, lest ye die.
Shakespeare: Othello - A jealous husband kills his wife, then himself, over love.
Sophocles: Antigone - A courageous sister follows her conscience to her death.

Series Two
Plato: Crito - Socrates explains why dying is preferable to escaping.
Euripides: Iphigenia at Aulis - A girl offers her own life so Greece can be victorious.
Melville: Billy Budd - A good man is framed by an evil man and hanged for it.

Series Three
Shakespeare: Hamlet - To be, or not to be, that is the question.
Bible: Gospel of Mark - The crucifixion, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
H. James: The Beast in the Jungle - Two people pass through life not realizing what love is.
Tolstoy: The Death of Ivan Ilych - A painful end leads Ivan to forgiveness and peace at last.

Series Four
Euripides: Medea - A mother kills her two boys to get back at her husband.
Gogol: The Overcoat - A shy office clerk has bad luck after his coat wears out.

Series Five
Bible: Ecclesiastes - A time to be born, and a time to die…
Kafka: Metamorphosis - Turning into a bug is an odd ending for a normal guy.
Dante: The Inferno - A trip through hell shows what may await some of us.


Blogger SMJ said...

A very nice summary of the possible human responses to death, especially as these responses are curated through Great Books readings.

2/21/2013 12:34 PM  

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