life and death

What is life?

I have not posted for some time here because I have been consumed with my studies. As the semester draws to a close, I will spend the next few months catching up on both my reading and my blogging, focusing, of course, on the Great Books of the Western World in particular. The next several posts will be somewhat out of the order in which these works are listed in our reading plan because I have been selective with those I have been able to sneak in here and there while reading, choosing those I was most interested in at the moment rather than whatever was next on the list.

For now, though, we are on track as I will be here briefly discussing Homer’s Iliad. It is fitting, it seems to me, that the title of the last work of last year’s reading was What is Life? Although that book is about a quite different topic, the question is an apt one to apply to Homer as well, and this work especially. (To be honest, it could be applied with equal force to nearly any of the Great Books).

This is the heart of the question that Achilles must answer when he chooses what sort of life he will live. His famous choice of two fates–to live a long, peaceful life or a short, glorious one–is one of the defining moments of the story. And it is, in a sense, the sort of choice that each of us must make. Behind this choice lies that question: what is life? What is the purpose and the value of a human life? For what are we intended? Achilles’s choice is well-known enough: glory–and an early death to go with it.

In the Odyssey, Odysseus visits Achilles in the underworld. During this visit, Achilles tells Odysseus that he would rather be a poor farmer on earth than be dead. I don’t recall that it’s ever made explicit, but it seems evident to me that if Achilles were given a second chance he would choose a different fate for himself.

Book Review: As I Lay Dying by William Faulkner

Given the importance and widely acknowledged greatness of this book, I would like here, in lieu of a “review” in the traditional sense of the term, to offer instead a few thoughts and comments toward a possible interpretation.

There is a great deal of Christian religious symbolism that runs throughout the book. There is, for example, the wonderfully succinct statement of the shortest chapter of the book, and perhaps the shortest meaningful chapter in all of English-language literature: “My mother is a fish.” The words of a child; simple, yet poignant and bursting with possibilities. What Faulkner has done in this single simple sentence is to turn the symbol of a fish, the ichthys of Christianity, a traditional symbol of the resurrected Christ, into a symbol of the finality of death, of the eternal absence of return. His mother is a fish because, like a fish, her eyes are lifeless, she has been gutted (metaphorically, in the case of the mother), and, of course, she flops around in the water when her casket falls into the river as they attempt to ford it.

It is in this Christian symbolism, I believe, that we can begin to arrive at a possible interpretation of the ostensible insanity of Darl. Darl is not insane in actuality, but is perceived as insane by the others because of his failure to conform to their expectations. He is different. He sees through things, he knows things, and he understands things. He is the only one of the members of the family that sees into the inner worlds of those around him, that is not entirely preoccupied with his own concerns. Dewey Dell even imagines that she has a conversation with him that takes place entirely in the realm of the mind. He penetrates her thoughts, he surpasses her objectivity.

And because he surpasses subjectivity he is frightening to the others. The rest of the family prefers their private obsessions. They do not want to be known. For this reason they have him taken away. They want to be away from his presence and the insight he has into each of them.

If all of this holds, Darl may be seen as a Christ-figure. He behaves in ways that do not meet other’s expectations and so makes them uncomfortable. He understands them perhaps better than they understand themselves, again making them uncomfortable. And he attempts to save them through a means which they do not understand and will not accept. In the end, they send him away because they want so badly to be out of his presence. There are, however, something (quite modern) fundamental differences between Darl and the usual Christ-figure. He is not killed and there is no resurrection; there is, therefore, no redemption.

Matthew and Acts

I am (finally!) beginning to catch up to where I had planned to be by this time in the Great Books of the Western World 10 Year Reading Plan. My (slightly modified version of the original) plan is to double up on the reading for the next few months. If (if!) I am able to do this, I will be able to catch up by the Spring, so stay tuned as we continue this journey. In the mean time, here are a few brief thoughts on the most recent reading, the Gospel of Matthew and the Acts of the Apostles:

As I noted in my comments on last month’s readings (from Plutarch), I have continued to see a theme of focus on leadership and government in the works we have read thus far this year. With this in mind, it is possible to compare the leadership of Christ over the apostles and of the apostles over the early Christian communities with the leadership of those figures whom Plutarch discusses in last month’s readings.

Like Numa and Lycurgus, we can certainly view Christ as a lawgiver. While a comparison of Christ-as-lawgiver/community-founder with Numa and/or Lycurgus as the same is the stuff dissertations are made of and I don’t plan to write a dissertation on this subject, there are some notable points of comparison and contrast that can be gotten at without the expenditure of much effort. Numa, for example, is referred to as a very pious individual by Plutarch; ostensibly, Numa derived the laws he delivered to the people through a divine medium. Similarly, of course, Christ, the new law-giver, comes with a new law that is of divine origin; notably, he also reorients the old law toward himself in his claim to be the divine figure who brought the earlier law.

It is also worth mentioning that one major contention that the Romans had with Christ and, later, with his followers was Christ’s claim of kingship, which seemed to be (and is, in the letters of St. Paul) a challenge to the authority of Caesar. Numa, as a founding figure of the Romans, then, stands in a sort of conflict with Christ in his claim of dominion.

The two historical (as opposed to mythological) figures discussed by Plutarch in last month’s readings, Julius Caesar and Alexander the Great, also present quite insightful contrasts with the leadership of Christ and his apostles. One might compare, for instance, the deaths of Caesar and Christ. Both are killed by their own people for their claim to be king, both are betrayed by a friend, the last words of both before their respective deaths are cries of abandonment,  but the nature of their claims are ultimately quite different: Caesar is murdered for grabbing ever greater amounts of power; Christ offers himself as a sacrifice on behalf of his people. It might be worth discussing this more when we read Dante in the future, given Dante’s placement of the murderers of Caesar (Cassius and Brutus) alongside the betrayer of Christ (Judas) in the mouths of Lucifer in the center of Hell.

There is much more that could be added here, but I will keep my remarks brief over the next several months as I seek to catch up in the reading list. I would be delighted to read and discuss any thoughts you might have about these readings. Leave a comment here to share your thoughts with us.

What Then?

His chosen comrades thought at school
He must grow a famous man;
He thought the same and lived by rule,
All his twenties crammed with toil;
‘What then?’ sang Plato’s ghost, ‘what then?’

Everything he wrote was read,
After certain years he won
Sufficient money for his need,
Friends that have been friends indeed;
‘What then?’ sang Plato’s ghost, ‘what then?

All his happier dreams came true–
A small old house, wife, daughter, son,
Grounds where plum and cabbage grew,
Poets and Wits about him drew;
‘What then?’ sang Plato’s ghost, ‘what then?’

‘The work is done,’ grown old he thought,
‘According to my boyish plan;
Let the fools rage, I swerved in nought,
Something to perfection brought’;
But louder sang that ghost, ‘What then?’

W.B. Yeats (1937)

Book Review: Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck

There are a number of important and interesting themes that run throughout Steinbeck’s classic work. While each deserves a great deal of attention, I will, in this review, provide just a few meditations upon one element which stood out to me as predominant.

This element is the theme of the desire to establish existence through procuring a permanent identity. Curly’s wife, for example, is consistently referred to merely as “Curly’s wife” rather than by her actual name, thereby denying her an existent independent of Curly through an individual identity. Her dreams of establishing such an identity, making a name for herself so to speak, through becoming a movie star, are dashed by her marriage to Curly. The result is that she is a figure of the devil. She has become one without existence properly speaking who seeks to lure others into the realm of non-existence.

The same theme is present in the association between the dog, who will leave no legacy, and the various men, each of whom will leave behind nothing of lasting significance in this world. The only one who does, who has a letter published in a magazine, does not himself appear in the novel and may be altogether unaware of his lasting significance, thereby himself being denied the ability to establish a permanent identity.

The pairing of George and Lennie, of course, is the example of inability to establish identity par excellence. Their ultimate desire is to own a piece of land, to have a piece of the earth which is theirs, a permanent establishment through which to derive selfhood. Lennie, however, may be the exception to the rule in his driving desire for passing pleasures which lead inevitably to the destruction of each thing from which he derives pleasure.

As I said, this, as well as many other themes in this short novel, deserve a great deal more attention. I share my thoughts because I desire them to act as an impetus to others who have not yet read this classic novel to take it up for themselves and enjoy it as much as I have.