Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

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

Monday, April 18, 2016

ARISTOTLE: On Happiness (Jacob and His Fiddle)

In our last reading we met a character who never found the happiness he was looking for.  Toward the end of his long life Jacob thought about all the things he might have done.  He might have become a fisherman and sold fish in the marketplace.  He might have set up a travelling music-boat show.  He might have started a ferry business.  He might have raised geese.  Would any of these things have made Jacob happy?  In this week’s reading Aristotle says probably not.  Why not?  Because Jacob never fulfilled his proper role in life.  According to Aristotle “the proper function of man consists in an activity of the soul in conformity with a rational principle.”  Jacob was very active.  He made coffins, played the fiddle, drank vodka, and beat up on Jews.  But his life wasn’t guided by a rational principle or, for that matter, any guiding principle at all.  The only thing he really cared about was making money.  That seemed to be his only principle.  Aristotle doesn’t think getting rich is a necessarily a bad thing.  Having money is, in fact, one of the ingredients for happiness.  But it’s only one of the ingredients.  Aristotle notes that “some people think happiness is virtue; others that it is practical wisdom; others that it is some kind of theoretical wisdom; others believe it to be pleasure and some also include prosperity in its definition.”  Happiness may include these things.  But having any (or even all) of them is no guarantee that a person will be happy.  For Aristotle being happy reflects “a kind of good life and well-being.”  Jacob didn’t have a good life.  But it wasn’t because he was poor.  It was because he didn’t live well. 

What does Aristotle have in mind when he says we should live well?  Choosing the right things for the right reason and then doing them well is what he calls happiness.  Jacob does some things well.  He makes good coffins.  He’s a good musician.  But he fails to become a better man by participating in those activities.  Jacob doesn’t use his work and leisure time to improve his soul.  “Soul” for Aristotle is that life-giving part of us which makes us alive.  We’re not rocks.  Our “souls” make us capable of thinking and doing.  Aristotle thinks a well-lived life doesn’t just happen.  It’s planned and carried out according to a rational blueprint.  How do we develop this blueprint?  Aristotle responds “perhaps this is best done by first ascertaining the proper function of man.”  First we should determine what we’re here for and only then develop a life plan for ourselves.  Whatever plan we choose, Aristotle adds, we need to set high standards because “the function of the harpist is to play the harp; the function of the harpist who has high standards is to play it well.”  Jacob set high standards for making coffins.  He set high standards for playing the fiddle.  In those areas he did very well.  But he failed to set high standards for being a man.  He failed at being a good neighbor and a good husband.  Making coffins didn’t help him be a better friend to Rothschild and playing his fiddle didn’t help him be a better husband to Martha.  Instead, Jacob focused his life almost entirely on making money.  He thought this would make him happy.  Aristotle warns that “fortune does not determine whether we fare well or ill, but is, as we said, merely an accessory to human life.”  The winds of Fortune can blow against us.  We’ll see that happen when we read Antigone (GB1).  But we can’t blame all our misfortunes on Fortune.  Sometimes it’s our own fault.  We’ll see that when we read Othello (GB1).  Jacob’s fault wasn’t that he loved to play the fiddle.  His fault was using the fiddle as his primary emotional outlet.  He should have shared his feelings with his wife and fellow band members.  Aristotle tells us “the crown at the Olympic Games is not awarded to the most beautiful and the strongest but to the participants in the contest.”  Being a good fiddle player isn’t enough.  To be happy, to be a winner in life, you have to be in the game.  Jacob never got off the bench.  He just daydreamed about what might have been.  That makes for a good song but not a good life. 

Monday, April 11, 2016

CHEKHOV: Rothschild’s Fiddle (Preview of Great Books)

Rothschild’s Fiddle may seem like an odd choice to begin a Great Books series covering the best works of Western civilization.  Nevertheless it’s the first reading in the first volume of the series.  Why would the editors start with this reading?  We can only guess but one reason may be that it touches on so many of the great themes covered in the set.  And Jacob the protagonist provides some good opening Great Books questions of his own.  He wonders “Why couldn’t a man live without all that loss and fuss… Why do people always do the wrong things… Why are people generally such a nuisance to each other?”  The Preacher in Ecclesiastes (GB5) pondered those same questions three thousand years ago and concluded “All is vanity.”  This pessimism isn’t limited to the ancient world.  Arthur Schopenhauer (1788-1860) came to the same conclusion when he wrote that “death is the great opportunity to no longer to be I.”  (Indestructibility of Our Inner Nature, GB4)

This vision is too bleak for most people.  We want something a little more positive.  We want to go on living and, if possible, be happy, because as Aristotle wrote (On Happiness, GB1) “happiness is at once the best, noblest, and most pleasant thing.”  Jacob wasn’t able to find happiness in 19th century Russia.  Jews weren’t able to find happiness living in bondage in ancient Egypt either.  So the Lord said to Moses “Come now therefore and I will send thee unto Pharaoh, that thou mayest bring forth my people the children of Israel out of Egypt.” (Exodus GB2)  But it was hard for Jews to find happiness in 19th century Russia too because “For no obvious reason Jacob became more and more obsessed by hatred and contempt for Jews, and for Rothschild in particular.”  Jacob doesn’t understand his own hateful anti-Semitic views and at one point asks himself “what, oh what, was the point of scaring and insulting that Jew (Rothschild) just now?”  He has a change of heart and by the end of the story Jacob leaves Rothschild “that Jew” his beloved fiddle.

Jacob’s wife Martha also found it hard to find happiness in their little Russian village.  Living with a husband like Jacob made it nearly impossible for her to be happy.  Chaucer presents an interesting contrast of marriage in two of his Canterbury Tales (The Wife of Bath’s Prologue and The Clerk’s Tale GB3).  The Wife of Bath wouldn’t have put up with Jacob for a single day.  She says “I didn’t give a hen for all his proverbs and his wise old men.  I wouldn’t be rebuked at any price; I hate a man who points me out my vice, and so, God knows, do many more than I.”  At the opposite end of the spectrum is Griselda in The Clerk’s Tale.  Griselda says “I for one was never worth, never in my life, to be your chambermaid, much less your wife.”  Martha resembled Griselda more than she resembled the Wife of Bath.  Of course Griselda’s husband was a marquis and Jacob was a poor coffin maker.  But in the Clerk’s Tale marriage isn’t supposed to be a constant battle of the sexes the way the Wife of Bath portrays it.  The Clerk says “O bow your neck under that blessed yoke!  It is a kingdom, not a slavery.”  Only after Martha dies does Jacob finally realize how tyrannical he had been as a husband.  He wasted his only chance for happiness because “never in his life had he been kind to Martha or shown her affection.”  
This story touches on happiness, the nature of marriage, and many other themes covered in the Great Books: money, government and bureaucracy, the role of the arts, death and taxes.  That’s a lot to pack into such a short story.  Americans today face these same problems and Rothschild’s Fiddle still seems fresh.  We’ll explore its main themes in future GB readings.

Monday, April 04, 2016

DELMORE SCHWARTZ: In Dreams Begin Responsibilities (Submerged Truth)

In our last reading Virginia Woolf said “it is in our idleness, in our dreams, that the submerged truth sometimes comes to the top.”  She believes our dreams contain hidden truths that lie somewhere deep within us.  Delmore Schwartz has a similar perspective but says responsibilities begin in our dreams.  What does he mean by that?  This is an odd story.  It takes place in the early morning of a young man’s 21st birthday.  He’s dreaming about watching an old film of his parent’s courtship when they were young.  He says “I feel as if I were in a motion picture theatre… and the actors are dressed in ridiculously old-fashioned clothes.”  The young man is three levels removed from reality.  First of all, it’s a dream.  Second, it’s a film.  Third, it takes place in an imaginary past.  He couldn’t possibly have known the reality of his parent’s courtship.  He wasn’t even born then and can only imagine what it was like.  Here’s the question proposed by the title: is the young man responsible for what happened in his dream?  In the film?  In the past?  From this point onward is he responsible for what happens in his own life?

We’ll look at the psychology of dreams later when we read Freud (On Dreams, GB5).  For this story we’ll focus on the film.  Schwartz describes the sensation of being a moviegoer.  He says “I am anonymous, and I have forgotten myself.  It is always so when one goes to the movies, it is, as they say, a drug.”  Is this why we go to movies?  So we can temporarily be anonymous and forget ourselves?  The power of watching films can be addictive as a drug.  We can’t resist the action taking place on the screen.  This film is a little different though.  It’s not one that Schwartz can watch anonymously and forget all about himself.  It’s about his mother and father.  It’s a film intimately connected to his own life.  But readers must wonder how much of this film reflects the real mother and father versus how much they’re just acting out roles.  When his father proposes marriage Schwartz’s mother responds “it’s all I’ve wanted from the moment I saw you.”  Is this his mother’s real feelings?  Or is she simply repeating a line she thinks she’s supposed to say?  Maybe it’s just a line from a movie she had seen somewhere and vaguely remembered.
Schwartz finally drops his anonymity and plays out his own role as future son-to-be.  He “stood up in the theatre and shouted: Don’t do it.  It’s not too late to change your minds, both of you.  Nothing good will come of it, only remorse, hatred, scandal, and two children whose characters are monstrous.”  With the help of hindsight Schwartz already knows the ending to this movie and it’s not a happy one.  He wants it to stop and ends up shouting “What are they doing?  Don’t they know what they’re doing?”  This annoys the other moviegoers and the usher grabs his arm and asks “What are you doing?  Don’t you know you can’t do whatever you want to do?”  Now we’re getting at the heart of the story.  It’s Schwartz’s story.  It’s his dream.  Is it his film too?  Is he responsible for it?  When people make films (or any other kind of art) in real life, can they do whatever they want to do?  Are artists free to do whatever they please or are they bounded in by the rules of their chosen arts?  When Schwartz writes a story can he do whatever he pleases?  Or is he bounded by the rules of grammar and human logic?  Can Schwartz’s character in the story do whatever he pleases?  Or is he also bounded by the rules of time and human society?  And what exactly is the connection between art and real life?  Does art enhance and highlight what goes on in real life?  Or is it an illusion that distorts things?  Does Shakespeare’s Hamlet show us the deeper meaning of what it means to be human?  Or does he distort life because normal people don’t think and talk in such lofty terms?  All these questions may be what Virginia Woolf refers to as “submerged truth.”  It lurks hidden beneath life’s daily activities.  Is it the responsibility of the artist to bring this submerged truth to the surface?  Or is it our responsibility to dig it out?