Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

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

Saturday, November 30, 2013

HENRY JAMES: The Beast in the Jungle (5: Fate and Psychology)

From the beginning of this story John Marcher has had a companion. But in Chapter 5 May Bartram dies and leaves him all alone in the world. Was this Marcher’s fate all along; to be lonely? Was there anything he could have done to avoid facing up to what he called “the common doom”? A good attitude is a good thing to have. But is it enough to carry us through life? In the Great Books Series we meet a sort of anti-Marcher in Kierkegaard’s Knight of Faith. This Knight of Faith starts from the opposite point of view from John Marcher. Marcher believes something bad is going to happen to him. And it does. The Knight of Faith believes something good is going to happen to him. And it does. On the surface they both live rather ordinary lives. In fact Kierkegaard is shocked at how ordinary the Knight of Faith seems: “Good Lord, is this the man, is this really the one; he looks just like a tax collector! …He is solid all the way through… He belongs entirely to the world… He finds pleasure in everything, takes part in everything… He attends to his job… He goes to church… if one did not know him, it would be impossible to distinguish him from the rest of the crowd.” In spite of his ordinary life this Knight of Faith is an extraordinary man because he finds contentment in his own life, in his own skin, in his own mind. John Marcher does not. Why not? What’s the difference?
Let’s consider John Marcher’s life. On the surface he acts just like any other ordinary man. But if we could look underneath the skin, deep into his mind, what we would find is that Marcher still looks like a very ordinary man, just like any other man. Maybe he’s a little more complex but he has the same fears and the same tendency to drift along through life without really understanding it. Thoreau once said that the mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation. And that’s true with Marcher too: “as he felt his forlornness he threw himself into the explanation that, nearest at hand, had most of a miserable warmth for him and least of a cold torment.” In the old sense of the word, Marcher is forlorn. He can’t find contentment anywhere. Instead he settles for the “least of a cold torment.” Like most ordinary men Marcher believed that his life was special. He thought he was singled out for a special fate. He was not. And when fate did come “It wasn't a thing of a monstrous order; not a fate rare and distinguished; not a stroke of fortune that overwhelmed and immortalised; it had only the stamp of the common doom.”
One other character in the Great Books comes to mind in this context. That character is Kurtz, from Conrad’s story Heart of Darkness. The Knight of Faith is content with life and makes the best of things. But Kurtz isn’t content with “the beast” in his own life. Marcher is afraid of the beast in the jungle even though he lives in the heart of London. Kurtz isn’t afraid of a literal beast in a literal jungle. He goes far away from civilization, deep into the jungles of Africa, to confront life. And it’s strange that a man as timid as John Marcher and a man as fearless as Kurtz end up so close to the same place, psychologically. In Heart of Darkness we read about Kurtz’s fate: “I think the knowledge came to him at last; only at the very last. But the wilderness had found him out early, and had taken on him a terrible vengeance for the fantastic invasion. I think it whispered to him things about himself which he did not know, things of which he had no conception till he took counsel with this great solitude; and the whisper had proved irresistibly fascinating. It echoed loudly within him because he was hollow at the core…” That’s a good description of Marcher too; he didn’t know himself. He was hollow at the core. Can positive thinking overcome this kind of basic psychological hollowness? Are our fates sealed by our mental approach to life? Put another way: is happiness all in our minds? Can we choose to be happy or does Fate stamp us all with that “common doom” which finally got John Marcher?

Saturday, November 23, 2013

HENRY JAMES: The Beast in the Jungle 4 (On Fate and Making Mistakes)

“It isn't that it's all a mistake?" Marcher asked May. Some mistakes can be corrected quickly and simply: oops. Hit the delete key. Get on with life. Other mistakes can be corrected but take a lot of time and effort to fix. Agamemnon made this kind of mistake in The Iliad when he got Achilles mad. It was a whole lot easier to take away Achilles’ girl-prize than to get him fighting again. Some mistakes are so big and so bad that things can never be put back right again. If life is a game then Agamemnon sacrificing his daughter Iphigenia was a game-breaking mistake. It cost him his life. By Chapter 4 of Beast in the Jungle John Marcher is well on his way to making the same game-breaking mistake. It will cost him his life too; only in a different kind of way and with a different kind of woman.
May Bartram isn’t Clytemnestra. May isn’t a killer; she’s a refined and elegant lady. But like Clytemnestra, May is a strong-willed woman. Once May makes her mind up to do something she’s going to see it through. John Marcher is no Agamemnon either. It’s hard to imagine Marcher fathering a child, much less commanding an army. Agamemnon may have been a boorish and shallow man but we have to give him his due: once he decided to do something, he did it; right or wrong, he took action. Aristotle may have counseled that Agamemnon took too much action. He should have spent less time doing and more time thinking. Then he wouldn’t have gotten into so many jams. But Aristotle may very well have advised Marcher to do just the opposite. For Aristotle man is more than just a brain on a stick. He’s made for a purpose. And John Marcher would have done well to ask: what is my purpose? What am I here for? He doesn’t seem to know. All he knows is there’s a beast out there, somewhere, waiting to devour me. Aristotle might have said: very well. It’s a reasonable thing to take precautions against being devoured. It’s quite a different thing to spend your whole life hiding in the weeds. You have to get in the game Marcher.
That’s why Marcher’s question to May is a very important one: “It isn't that it's all a mistake?" Marcher wants to know if there’s a beast out there who will devour him; kind of like a child asking his mother if there’s a monster in the closet. May doesn’t lie to him. There really is a beast out there. “A mistake?" she pityingly echoed… “Oh no,” she declared; “it’s nothing of that sort. You’ve been right.” He must have thought, aha, now I understand. I knew it. But he doesn’t really understand her. There really is a beast out there and it really will devour you. It will devour us. However, it won’t do any good to hide in the weeds. The beast will devour us anyway. Call it what you will, time, life, fate, it doesn’t much matter what you call it. In the end the beast will get you. It gets all of us eventually. Hiding in the weeds won’t help. Time will find us out wherever we are. Our bodies will age and our minds will fade. Life will slowly drain away, day by day, gradually taking away our freedom to choose. Fate will find us out; even in the weeds, even behind shut doors. Of course Marcher isn’t ready to hear any of this because he doesn’t want to hear it. He wants to face life on his own terms. It will never happen. He asks: “I haven't waited but to see the door shut in my face?” She tries to reassure him “…Whatever the reality, it IS a reality. The door isn't shut. The door's open," said May Bartram.” This is reality: as long as we’re alive the door’s open to new paths. But we have to choose our own path. And sometimes we’ll make mistakes along the way. John Marcher doesn’t want to risk it. His big mistake is being afraid he’ll make a mistake. Shutting the door doesn’t help; Marcher has only locked himself in with the beast. That mistake becomes his fate.

HENRY JAMES: The Beast in the Jungle 3 (Aging Gracefully)

When May Bartram agreed to “watch” with John Marcher she may not have realized it would be a lifetime commitment. Some people know exactly what they want out of life. The Wife of Bath wanted a new husband. Clytemnestra wanted to kill her old one. Achilles wanted respect and honor. Jesus wanted to follow the will of his Father. Other people aren’t as clear about what they want out of life. Hamlet had a hard time making up his mind whether it’s better to be or not to be. May Bartram is in the class of those who know what they want out of life. She made a commitment to stick by John Marcher and that’s exactly what she did. She didn’t swerve from her original plan. John Marcher, on the other hand, was more like Hamlet. He felt that something terrible was going to happen to him. He just wasn’t sure what it was. And he could never seem to make up his mind how to deal with it. It was like a beast in the jungle waiting to pounce on him.
Young people have premonitions or dreams about what their lives will be like. They may become famous rock stars or artists or athletes. They may die young but tragically and romantically like Romeo and Juliet. But as years go by most people shed these illusions and get on with their lives. John Marcher did not. The question for the reader is: why not? And a related question concerning May Bartram is: why did she stick with him? It’s a complicated answer because these were complicated people. Like Hamlet, John Marcher was ultimately most interested in the inner workings of his own mind. He was convinced that he was doomed to some awful fate, but what? He didn’t know. He was just sure that it would happen. If not now, then some time in the future. But as the years drag on nothing happens. The beast doesn’t pounce. Marcher begins to wonder if he’s made a big mistake; if this whole idea of his doomed fate was just a colossal waste of time. Marcher is an educated man and we can see the workings of his mind when he ponders: “Since it was in Time that he was to have met his fate, so it was in Time that his fate was to have acted.” Dummies never have those kinds of thoughts. Time and fate are, in fact, closely interconnected. A man’s fate has to play itself out in the real world over an extended period of time. Life isn’t just one little episode; or, in Marcher’s case, it isn’t just one huge cataclysmic event that stamps Marcher’s Fate forever on his forehead.
Life is more subtle, more complicated, and yet at the same time much simpler, than John Marcher realizes. May Bartram figures this out fairly early. She gets it. But as the years roll by he still doesn’t get it: “ he waked up to the sense of no longer being young, which was exactly the sense of being stale… It all hung together… When the possibilities themselves had accordingly turned stale, when the secret of the gods had grown faint, had perhaps even quite evaporated, that, and that only, was failure.” As May Bartram ages she mellows and finds contentment. John Marcher just becomes stale. What’s the difference? Why do some people age gracefully and other folks just turn stale? Marcher thinks May knows some secret and she’s not telling him. But she’s not telling him because it’s not something that can be told. Life has to be lived personally in order to be an authentic life. And that’s not something she can give to him; he has to choose his own path. May chose her path. What happens if Marcher doesn’t? “It wouldn't have been failure to be bankrupt, dishonoured, pilloried, hanged; it was failure not to be anything.” Marcher’s worst nightmare is about to come true. His failure lies in not choosing his own path/fate and that’s the same beast that rotted Hamlet’s life: to be, or not to be…anything.

Saturday, November 16, 2013

HENRY JAMES: The Beast in the Jungle (1-2)

Last week we read an ancient Greek play about Agamemnon. When Aeschylus sat down to write Agamemnon he didn’t have to stop and make up all the characters that would be in his play. They were already there. Homer’s story of The Iliad already contained many of the characters that would be used by Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides in their own Greek tragedies. Aeschylus just built on a literary foundation that was laid before him. Writers don’t exist in a vacuum. When Chaucer wrote about the Wife of Bath he could draw on all these Greek stories and more. When Henry James wrote The Beast in the Jungle he could draw on the Greek stories plus Chaucer and all the other writers up to his own time. They read the classics, reflected on them, and then responded with their own visions of life. One Great Books commentator called this The Great Conversation.
With that background in mind maybe we can better appreciate Henry James’ vision of life. The Beast in the Jungle is set in the upper classes of British society. Marcher and May Bartram are well educated and sophisticated people. The story has a definite psychological tone that sets it far apart from Chaucer and Aeschylus. Marcher confesses to May that he’s always felt as if some catastrophe is out there waiting for him; something dramatic that will change him forever and will pounce on him suddenly, like a beast in the jungle. May has to decide if this man is a nut case or if Marcher is someone she’d like to know better. She takes him seriously and they embark on a relationship. Most of the action in the story takes place only in their heads. But the reader is given a vision of life and the intimate connections that can hold people together for years.
May has made it her goal in life to find out what Marcher wants. He says "It isn't a question of what I want; God knows I don't want anything. It's only a question of the apprehension that haunts me; that I live with day by day." This “apprehension” of some “beast” is what bothers Marcher. So he asks May to “watch” with him. But he leaves the final decision up to May: "It will only depend on yourself; if you'll watch with me." Where have we heard that one before? Writers don’t exist in a vacuum. Henry James may be echoing an earlier reading in the Gospel of Mark. In Gethsemane the disciples of Jesus fall asleep and he asks “couldst thou not watch one hour… the spirit truly is willing but the flesh is weak.” May asks Marcher, three times, are you afraid? And three times Marcher avoids giving her a direct answer. Where have we heard that before? From the same Gospel. Three times they ask Peter if he knows Jesus; Peter is afraid and says no three times in three different ways. Now compare the exchange between May and Marcher: "Are you afraid?" she asked. "Don't leave me now," he went on. "Are you afraid?" she repeated. "Do you think me simply out of my mind?" he pursued instead of answering. "Do I merely strike you as a harmless lunatic?" "No," said May Bartram. "I understand you. I believe you." "You mean you feel how my obsession (poor old thing!) may correspond to some possible reality?" "To some possible reality." "Then you will watch with me?" She hesitated, then for the third time put her question. "Are you afraid?" "Did I tell you I was; at Naples?" What is Marcher afraid of? Maybe he’s afraid of the real question May is asking him. It’s the same question Jesus later asks Peter three times: do you love me? Peter is a simple man and answers yes, yes, and yes. Marcher is complex and answers don’t leave me, do you think I’m crazy, and did I tell you that? What is Marcher afraid of? Maybe some beast; maybe just being in love.

Saturday, November 09, 2013

AESCHYLUS: Agamemnon (Poetic Justice)

In Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales the Clerk says: “This story was not told so that wives will follow Griselda's example in humility, for that would be intolerable even if they wanted to, but so that everyone, according to his station, will be steadfast in adversity as Griselda was.” In other words, he tells the reader how his story should be read. How should we read Aeschylus’ play about Agamemnon? There aren’t any cue cards. Is Clytemnestra being steadfast in her adversity like Griselda, only in a different way? Why do these two women react so differently regarding their daughters? Is each one of them merely reacting according to her station in life? Does it matter that both of them are queens (one of noble birth and the other of peasant birth)? Are Greek women and English women so very different? Are women and men so very different?
There are so many questions; so many different ways to read this story; so many different interpretations of this play. Where should we start? Maybe with a simple question: was Clytemnestra a good wife and mother? Clytemnestra knows how a good wife (and queen) acts when her husband (and lord) is away from home for ten years: “And for his wife, may he return and find her true at hall, just as the day he left her, faithful to the last. A watchdog gentle to him alone, savage to those who cross his path. I have not changed.” Clytemnestra knows how to be a good wife and queen. But she also knows how to be a good mother. Before Agamemnon left for Troy he sacrificed their daughter Iphigenia to the gods in order to complete his mission. Clytemnestra wasn’t angry, she was livid. There’s a prophetic undercurrent in her blunt statement that “I have not changed.” And it’s true, she hasn’t changed. So when Agamemnon comes back home after ten long years of war the first thing Clytemnestra does is kill him. And she is totally unrepentant. She says “I brooded on this trial, this ancient blood feud year by year. At last my hour came. Here I stand and here I struck and here my work is done. I did it all.”
Is the reader supposed to take this as a reasonable act of proper justice or as a cruel act of raw vengeance? It’s a very tangled web. Who is ultimately responsible for Agamemnon’s death? The easy answer is, Clytemnestra of course. And that’s true. But the poet in Aeschylus points out that “…the architect of vengeance growing strong in the house with no fear of the husband / here she waits / the terror raging back and back in the future / the stealth, the law of the hearth, the mother / Memory womb of Fury child-avenging Fury!” Clytemnestra was the architect of vengeance. She planned it, she carried it out. But Agamemnon broke a sacred law of the hearth; he killed his own child. As the mother who carried that child in her own womb, Clytemnestra is overwhelmed with the “Memory womb of Fury child-avenging Fury.” The memory womb of child-avenging fury may be a reflection of the will of the Greek gods. Aeschylus says “the gods are deaf to the one who turns to crime, they tear him down. / So Paris (a prince from Troy) learned: he came to Atreus' house (Menelaos & Agamemnon were sons of Atreus) and shamed the tables spread for guests, he stole away the queen. And she (Helen, wife of Menelaos) left her land chaos, clanging shields, companions tramping, bronze prows, men in bronze, and she came to Troy with a dowry, death…” Clytemnestra’s hand held the knife. But behind her act is the ancient and bloody curse on the house of Atreus; a Trojan prince abducting a Greek queen; Menelaos willing to kill innocent people to punish the Trojans for taking his wife; Helen (willingly?) taking her “dowry” of death with her to the shores of Troy; and the Greek soldiers themselves, willing to sacrifice an innocent Greek girl (Clytemnestra’s daughter) for their own greed and blood lust. This is a very tangled web. Philosophers have long debated what justice is. Aeschylus is a poet and shows us what it looks like in a flawed world of flesh and blood.

Saturday, November 02, 2013

CHAUCER: The Clerk’s Tale (Medieval and Modern Views)

When we finish reading the Wife of Bath’s Tale we come away with the impression that she would be pretty much at home in any barroom in America. When we read about Griselda in the Clerk’s Tale we come away wondering if she would feel at home anywhere in America. Compare what the online version of Cliff’s Notes has to say about the Wife of Bath and Griselda. First, the Wife of Bath: “The Wife of Bath is intriguing to almost anyone who has ever read her prologue, filled with magnificent, but for some, preposterous statements. First of all, the Wife is the forerunner of the modern liberated woman, and she is the prototype of a certain female figure that often appears in later literature. Above all, she is, for the unprejudiced reader, Chaucer's most delightful creature…” Good. Now we know what to think about the Wife of Bath. How about Griselda? Cliff’s Notes says “Griselda presents some problems for the modern reader. Can a peasant girl suddenly lifted from poverty and placed among the riches of the palace maintain her "sweet nobility"? Is it possible for a woman to possess this overwhelming patience and unquestioning obedience? Can a mother actually relinquish her innocent children without a single protest? Many modern readers consider Griselda a rather ridiculous creature and Chaucer's portrait of this tender maiden one that taxes the imagination.” According to Cliff’s Notes the Wife of Bath is Chaucer’s most delightful creature; Griselda is a ridiculous creature. Cliff’s Notes may be right. On the other hand, they may have missed the whole point of the Clerk’s Tale; or else they didn’t finish reading all the story.
The Clerk (Chaucer) takes great pains at the end to let the reader know that his story isn’t meant to be taken literally. It’s meant to be read as an allegory: “This story was not told so that wives will follow Griselda's example in humility, for that would be intolerable even if they wanted to, but so that everyone, according to his station, will be steadfast in adversity as Griselda was.” The point of the story isn’t to tell wives don’t stand up for yourself; let other people walk all over you; become a doormat. This is a bad message for young women. But the point of the story isn’t to be a doormat; it’s meant to instill stable and enduring values so that everyone, according to his station, can be “steadfast in adversity.” When times get tough, hang in there. What’s ridiculous about that advice? It’s a good message for everyone. What Cliff’s Notes sees (and disapproves) in Griselda is unquestioning obedience. What they see in the Wife of Bath (and approve) is a modern liberated woman. Most American readers won’t read Chaucer. But if we do, most of us, nearly all of us, would agree with the Cliff’s Notes assessment. Why is that?
Two reasons: one, many of us are poor readers. We have a hard time understanding plain English, much less allegorical stories. The cure for this problem is simply to read more, especially genres we’re not familiar with (like medieval allegories). Two, we live by a different set of values than the Clerk. The second problem is deeper and harder to solve. It’s a deep problem but put simply: we don’t want to change. The Clerk says “Since one woman was so patient towards a mortal man, the more we should receive with patience all that God sends us…” For the Clerk, enduring adversity is a virtue. When modern Americans encounter a problem we don’t want to endure it, we want to fix it. We don’t want to learn patience. We want to fix Griselda; Walter too. We think everything depends on us, on our own efforts. The Clerk doesn’t think that way. He says “God tests people every day and permits us often to be beaten in various ways, for our own good…” The Clerk believes there are some things we can’t fix, some things we can’t understand. It takes unquestioning obedience to accept that. But it’s not the American way we protest. Precisely, says the Clerk, because your role model is the Wife of Bath.