Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

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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?


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