Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

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

Thursday, August 20, 2015

CHEKHOV: Rothschild’s Fiddle (Psychology and Philosophy)

William James was a good solid American.  His philosophy reflects American ideals and values.  In our last reading (The Social Me) James talked a lot about the various “selves” we adopt just by living ordinary lives.  For example, self-service is a phrase we commonly hear in America.  We pump our own gas and hardware stores are filled with products for do-it-yourself projects.  Self-improvement books are on many best seller lists.  The Great Books is a good example of our fascination with self-improvement plans.  And the latest innovation is taking a “selfie” photo for social media.  Now we have a Russian author, Anton Chekhov, and his story called Rothschild’s Fiddle.  What were Chekhov’s values?  And what would William James think of the story and Chekhov's values?

William James was a psychologist and philosopher.   The psychologist-self in James would be interested in getting at the concrete facts of the story.  Here are the facts considered as a psychological case study.  Jacob Ivanov married Martha when they were eighteen.  They had a baby daughter when they were twenty but the girl died soon afterward.  Jacob was in good physical health his whole life.  His occupation was coffin maker.  He thought about money constantly.  He was ill-tempered, anti-Semitic, and did not have an affectionate relationship with his wife.  He also had a cold personality.  Music was his only emotional outlet.  Using these facts we can now make a psychological assessment.  Jacob Ivanov was a self-centered man.  His world centered on his own feelings and he had little empathy for the feelings of other people.  Until the final days of his life Jacob tightly suppressed the memory of his daughter, their only child.  This was psychologically unhealthy but went on for fifty years.  Then Jacob died.

The philosopher-self in James was more interested in getting at the deeper meaning of the story.  Jacob played many roles in life.  He was husband and (briefly) father, good coffin maker, good musician.  He was also, surprisingly, something of a homespun philosopher.  Jacob was not a happy man but he had some very good observations about life.  He once said “every insect wants to live.”  So when Martha was dying why did she seem glad?  Jacob knew why.  Her life with him had been miserable.  This is the kind of insight that leads to wisdom.  But it’s the kind of wisdom that comes with a high price.  In the old Greek play by Sophocles (GB5) Oedipus had to confront his “true” self.  In Chekhov’s story Jacob has to confront his true self too or, since he’s dying, who he was and what his life had been: “Life had flowed past without profit, without enjoyment; gone aimlessly, leaving nothing to show for it.”  This is a melancholy philosophy but seems to reflect a dark Russian mood that counterbalances the bright optimism of William James and his American brand of philosophy.  Jacob Ivanov and William James are both pragmatists.  But Jacob tends to see the glass half empty and James to see it half full.  These two views can also be seen in other Great Books readings.  Jacob asks “Why do people always do the wrong things?”  John Dewey (GB2 & 3), a fellow American and glass-is-half-full philosopher, answers it’s because we have the wrong kind of education.  Fix public education and we fix the problem.  St. Augustine (GB4) would reply that it’s not that simple.  We live in a fallen world.  We do wrong because our hearts are wrong.  We can’t “fix the problem” without divine help.  In Augustine’s view Jacob Ivanov doesn’t need a new kind of education or psychological counseling; he needs a whole change of heart.  Jacob doesn’t care a fig about philosophy.  Before he dies he just wants an answer to the one question that burned inside him: “Why are things so oddly arranged?  You only live once, so why don’t you get anything out of it?”  This is a very serious question right in the middle of a funny story that takes a sad turn.  Jacob played the fiddle to ease his sadness about the human condition.  Chekhov used stories to do the same thing.


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