Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

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Tuesday, December 03, 2013

HENRY JAMES: The Beast in the Jungle (6: Fate and Mathematics)

The theme of Fate floats through this whole story like a fog. It sets the tone and blurs the actions of the characters. It lurks in the background like a beast in the jungle. And fog is a good artistic image of Fate. But is it an accurate description? Is Fate like a fog, the way it is for John Marcher? Or is Fate more like a beacon shining in darkness, as it is in Sophocles’ story of Oedipus the King? An oracle had predicted that Oedipus would kill his father and marry his mother. Oedipus did everything within his power to prevent this from happening. But hard as he tried, he only assured the very Fate that he was trying to avoid. Sophocles made Fate as clear as a lighthouse beacon cutting through the fog.
Can fate possibly be as clear as mathematics? We can try a simple experiment. The simplest mathematical relationship is x = y. Show me what x is and I can show you what y will be. If x is an optimistic outlook, then y will be the optimistic fate. John Marcher’s outlook on life (X) was a good indicator of what his fate (Y) would be. Of course real life is never that simple. Some people are born with good health or a good mind, for example (let’s call these “a”). If we add in these “a” factors, our formula becomes X + a = Y. But what if someone is born with poor health or has bad habits? Subtract the negative factors (call these “b”). Now we have the formula X (a – b) = Y. Life is even more complicated than that. No man is an island. Some people live in good societies, some don’t. This social effect gets multiplied in urban environments and creates possibilities far beyond the capacities of any one individual. In The Beast in the Jungle, for example, John and May go to the opera. Let’s call positive social factors “c”. Plugging c into our equation we now have X (a – b) x c = Y. Social factors can also be destructive or divisive. So we need to divide by the bad social factors (called, “d”). What we finally end up with is something like this: X (a-b) x (c/d) = Y. Or, X plus (a) minus (b) times (c) divided by (d) = Y. My attitude plus my personal gifts minus my personal vices times my social advantages… etc. And presto! Fate is mathematical.
No one is convinced by this argument. Why not? There are too many variables in life to reduce it to a mathematical formula. John Marcher and May Bartram are not just variables in a mathematical equation. They’re human beings with personal emotions and private reasons of their own making. This is exactly what Dostoyevsky was protesting in his story Notes from the Underground: don’t turn me and my life into a formula. I’m a man, not X or Y. Mathematics is like a stone wall. What stone wall? To quote from his story: “What stone wall? Why, the laws of nature, of course, the conclusions of natural science, mathematics… Good Lord, they’ll scream at you, you can’t possibly deny that 2+2=4! Never does nature ask you for your opinion; she does not care a damn for your wishes or whether you like her laws or not. You are obliged to accept her as she is…” But Dostoevsky responds: “…what do I care for the laws of nature and arithmetic if for some reason I don’t like those laws of 2+2=4? No doubt I shall never be able to break through such a stone wall with my forehead, if I really do not possess the strength to do it, but I shall not reconcile myself to it just because I have to deal with a stone wall and haven’t the strength to knock it down.” (GB 2nd Series, Vol. 1) That’s a valiant attitude; but he may end up beating his head against a stone wall of truth forever. Both Oedipus and Marcher found out their fates the hard way. For Sophocles fate was a beacon of truth shining in the darkness. Henry James thinks fate is more like a beast in a foggy jungle.


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