Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

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

Friday, September 19, 2014

BIBLE: Ecclesiastes (Literature and Logic)

Any time we read a work of fiction (a novel or a play or a short story) an obvious question always comes up: What is the author trying to say? What was Gogol trying to say when he wrote The Overcoat? We’ll never know for sure what Gogol was trying to say, any more than we can know for sure what Shakespeare was trying to say when he wrote Hamlet or King Lear. But there’s at least one thing we can know for sure. We can know for sure the impact the story had on us as readers. And we can bet that other readers took away different meanings than we did. The Overcoat is no different. No doubt many readers see Akaky as a pathetic figure, a loser who’s responsible for his own pathetic situation. Many other readers no doubt see Akaky as the victim of a cold and cruel society. Still others might read the story as a comedy; a dark comedy maybe, but still funny in a warped kind of way. Here’s the problem. None of these readers would argue that 2+2 does not equal four. 2+2=4. End of story. Yet they might argue for hours about the meaning of The Overcoat. How can this be? Two quick answers should suffice. One: literature is not mathematics. Two: in modern terms, different strokes for different folks.
Does that mean there are no standards for literature, the way there are standards for mathematics? No, but it does mean we have to use different methods for analyzing literature. We wouldn’t use literary methods to analyze a geometrical proof. One of the reasons people disagree about meaning in literature is because they bring different methods to the table. In geometry we can draw a straight line from one point to another. That’s the meaning of a straight line. We all agree on that point. But in literature we don’t all agree on the meaning of beauty. Is a straight line beautiful in the same way a poem or a short story is beautiful? Let’s phrase our question in slightly different terms. Gogol was an artist, not a mathematician. What is Gogol trying to say to us using literature as his method; what is it he could not say to us by using logic?
The Book of Ecclesiastes provides a perfect example of this intersection between literature and logic. In America Ecclesiastes is most famous from the popular song Turn, Turn, Turn sung by The Byrds in the 1960’s. And there is indeed a certain kind of beauty in the repetitious phrasing of these words from Ecclesiastes: “To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven… A time to be born, and a time to die…” There’s a powerful symmetry and a subconscious rhythm to repeating “a time to do X, and a time to do Y” over and over again. Symmetry and rhythm are two fundamental foundations of beauty in art. Deep in our minds there’s a hypnotic effect to understanding that two things are alike, side by side, in relation to one another; or, this sound was like the last one, and lasted the same amount of time. Relationships in space and time equal beauty. That’s one standard we use in measuring art.
But Ecclesiastes also has another standard for measuring beauty. How do we measure literary relationships between a story like The Overcoat and the poetry of Ecclesiastes? Here’s how. Ecclesiastes is a lens we can use to look at a character like Akaky with fresh eyes. For example, Akaky kind of stumbled along in life; he wasn’t the quickest guy in the office. Ecclesiastes says “the race is not to the swift.” Akaky was a weakling. Ecclesiastes says “nor the battle to the strong.” And Akaky’s mind wasn’t the sharpest one in the office. Ecclesiastes says “neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding.” In other words, Ecclesiastes turns logic on its head to give us a more poetic view of Akaky. All the guys in the office thought they were better off than Akaky. Ecclesiastes says they were all wrong because “time and chance happeneth to them all.” This sounds logical and cold; but in the literary sense, it’s beautiful.


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