Idealism as Egoism in Joseph Conrad’s Nostromo. The Contradictions in a Depressive’s Dystopian World View. Things fall apart and apart and apart…

Idealism as Egoism in Joseph Conrad’s Nostromo.

The Contradictions in a Depressive’s Dystopian World View.

Things fall apart and apart and apart…

“I’ll let you be in my dream if I can be in yours.”

Bob Dylan

Burton Weltman

A. Prologue and Warning.

Joseph Conrad’s Nostromo is one of the most highly regarded novels that is least read.  This is a dubious distinction that it shares with such novels as Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain and Herman Melville’s Moby Dick.  Each of these novels is long, with a complicated narrative structure, lengthy descriptions of scenes and things, and abstract philosophical interludes. Each is full of soliloquys, speechifying, and long internal monologues that can seem stilted and unrealistic.  They are challenging reads.

First published in 1904, Nostromo has been called “a novel that one cannot read unless one has read it before.”[1]  It is chock full of characters, and the plot would be complex enough if it was narrated in a linear fashion, which it isn’t.  Conrad repeatedly switches from the novel’s present to the past and then to the future, and he gives the reader little clue when he has done so.  He also repeatedly switches the perspective on events, with different narrators presenting differing pictures of the same events.  There is no clear master narrative to the book, and not even common ground among the narrators or between the narrators and other characters.  The result is that the reader can never find a secure footing.  Staying with the book is an effort.  Many have questioned whether it is worth the effort, and decided that it isn’t.

I first read Nostromo some forty years ago.  I remember finding it exciting but disconcerting, and I wasn’t sure why.  I recently read Maya Jasanoff’s new biography of Conrad, The Dawn Watch: Joseph Conrad in a Global World,[2] which inspired me to reread Nostromo.  Once again, I found it exciting and exacting, but still disconcerting.  I think, however, that I now know why the book disturbs me.  I have also concluded that it is well worth the effort.  It is a beautiful, inciteful and haunting book about ideals, idealism, and ideas that forces you to rethink your own principles.  But I must add the warning that taking this book out of context could be hazardous to your mental health, and to your political and intellectual will.  I hope, herein, to explain what I mean.

B. The Plot: Making a Long Story as Short as I Can.

Nostromo is the story of a political revolution in the imaginary South American country of Costaguana (coast of bird dung).  The country is caught in a seemingly endless cycle of violent upheavals in which brutal dictatorships alternate with inept republics, over and over again, so that nothing ever really changes.  The current disorders revolve around a silver mine which is coveted by both would-be dictators and erstwhile republicans.  The republicans are portrayed in the book as the good guys, the dictators as bad guys.

In my reading, Nostromo is a story about the futility and fatality of idealism.  Jasanoff claims that Conrad believed that “force will crush ideals – and that ideals have victims,” a theme that “recurred throughout his writing” and particularly in Nostromo.[3]  The story is full of idealists, the bad guys as well as the good, who idealize all sorts of things that they think will make for a better world, but whose dreams invariably become nightmares.

The conflicts and contradictions among the characters’ ideals, and the egoism that lies behind them and pushes them forward, is the substance of the story.  It is not an uplifting tale. Conrad opines in his own voice that “A man haunted by a fixed idea is insane.  He is dangerous even if that idea is an idea of justice.”[4]  Idealism, according to Conrad, is a form of egoism, and idealists are pitiless in pursuit of their respective ideals. That is what repeatedly happens in the book.

Nostromo, the book’s namesake, is an ostensibly incorruptible employee of the shipping company that serves the silver mine.  He idealizes himself and lives only for the purity of his reputation.  He is a sympathetic character, but one who is clearly defined by egoism, and it is his egoism that leads to his downfall.  Other characters are not so openly egoistic, but egoism still underlies Conrad’s descriptions of their idealism.

Charles Gould is the owner of the mine.  He is an upright and universally respected man, whose materialism – his belief that money makes the world go around – is the basis for his idealism.  He believes his mine will provide the material foundation for a peaceful Costaguanan republic, and he openly speaks of himself as the savior of the country.  His efforts to develop the mine are backed by an American financier who also seeks to do good, so long as it is profitable.

Don Jose Avellanos is an aristocratic republican who was tortured almost to death by the previous dictator.  He upholds the ideal of noblesse oblige.  Antonia, his daughter, idealizes and supports her father.  Martin Decoud idealizes and pursues Antonia.  Giorgio Viola is a former follower of Garibaldi in Italy who idealizes heroic leaders, including Gould and Nostromo.

Mrs. Gould, Charles Gould’s wife, is a self-consciously saintly woman who idealizes humanity, and cares for the misfits and outcasts of Costaguanan society.  She is the exception that seemingly proves the rule in the book, as she is the one idealist who is not an egotist.

There are many other good guys in the book, and variations on the idealist theme.  There are also bad guys who are idealists, albeit idealists of evil.  They are exemplified by Guzman Bento, the previous tyrant who had tortured Don Jose Avellanos, and by General Montero and his brother Pedro Montero, would-be dictators in the current crisis.

In Conrad’s view, evil can be idealized.  He says, for example, of Guzman Bento that “The power of Supreme Government had been in his dull mind an object of strange worship, as if it were some cruel deity and it was incarnated in himself.”[5]  Bento is an idealist.  Each of these bad guys has an ideal of an orderly society in which he is the dictator.  And the fact is that the dictatorship of Guzman Bento brought peace to Costaguana, even if it was temporary and bought at a high cost in human suffering and death.

In the midst of the competing egos and ideals of the would-be saviors of Costaguana, the masses of ordinary people are rarely in evidence and invariably described in disparaging terms by the various narrators, including the voice of Conrad himself.  Conrad is no democrat.  The people are “the mob,” and victims of their own “mental darkness.”  He opines that “The popular mind is incapable of skepticism; and that incapacity delivers their helpless strength to the wiles of swindlers and to the pitiless enthusiasm of leaders inspired by visions of a high destiny” which, in turn, leads invariably to violence, brutality and oppression.[6]

None of the idealistic hopes of any of the characters is fulfilled, and this outcome is foredoomed by the fact that the idealism of each is essentially a form of egoism.  Each holds fast to an idea of an ideal world in which he/she rules and his/her ideas reign.  There is very little connection between and among these people or their ideas.  To each of them, it is “my way or the gallows.”

The book ends with the defeat of the Monteros and the installation of a weak and seemingly temporary republican regime.  More upheavals are inevitably in the offing.  The conclusion of most of the characters, and the book itself, is disillusionment.  Mrs. Gould speaks for most of the characters, and seemingly for Conrad, when she bemoans “Is it this we worked for, then?”[7]  Symbolizing the moral of the story, Nostromo performs heroically and righteously on behalf of the republican forces throughout three quarters of the book but dies ignominiously at the end after having compromised his integrity by stealing a consignment of silver from the mine.

C. Interpretations: Capitalist, Socialist, Imperialist, Anti-Imperialist, Racist, Humanist, Nihilist…You name it.

Nostromo has almost as many differing interpretations as it has interpreters. Commenting on this, Jasanoff says that “Conrad’s characters whisper in the ears of new generations of antiglobalization protesters and champions of free trade, liberal interventionists and radical terrorists, social justice activists and xenophobic nativists,” just to name a few.[8]  I think this diversity of interpretation is largely a function of there being so many narrators with different perspectives in the book.  They all take turns in being the voice of the book, even the bad guys.  Depending on which narrator you think that Conrad is favoring, you are likely to come up with an interpretation along the lines of that narrator’s perspective.

Some critics, for example, claim that the central message of the book is Gould’s argument that “material interests” will be the means of civilizing Costaguana, specifically in the form of his silver mine.  This ostensibly makes the book an encomium to capitalism.  Others claim that Nostromo’s affiliation with the workers in the book and his support for their wage and other claims makes the book an argument in favor of socialism.[9]

Some argue that the book is an apology for imperialism because the main voices in the book are those of Gould, Mrs. Gould, Decoud, and Nostromo, all of whom grew up and lived in Europe and who, thereby, represent a Western imperialist view of Costaguana.  These Europeans plus some European engineers and seamen are also the only competent people in the book.  Native Costaguanans are almost invariably portrayed as incompetent.  This argument is bolstered by the fact that Gould’s mine is dependent on the investment of an American financier who openly proclaims that America will one day rule Costaguana.  At the same time, other interpreters claim the book is effectively an anti-imperialist story because it portrays the futility of these Europeans to establish their republican government and civil society in Costaguana.  Costaguana is, after all, in as big a mess at the end of the book as it was at the beginning.[10]

Since native Costaguanans in the book are invariably portrayed as ignorant, incompetent, and irrational, mostly appearing in the form of rioting mobs, Nostromo has been condemned as racist.  At the same time, since the book repeatedly portrays ordinary Costaguanans as being exploited and oppressed by elites from all political parties, European and Costaguanan alike, the book has been praised as humanistic and humanitarian.  Finally, with all of the confusion and contradiction among the characters and their points of view, and with an overall picture of Costaguana as a worst of all possible worlds, Nostromo has been characterized as an exposition of nihilism and an example of post-modernism before its time.[11]

I think that each of these interpretations is plausible.  But their differences leave us readers as confused as the characters in the book.  What are we to think?  I think we can safely say that Conrad’s descriptions of things in the book are beautiful, even stunning.  His characters are brilliantly etched, and his transcriptions of their internal monologues are moving and convincing.  His portrayal of the action is riveting.  And Conrad’s discussion of social and political issues is incisive. Finally, I think we can say that the book is disconcerting.  This is in part because the book’s characters are uniformly depressed and the plot is thoroughly depressing.  But, even more, I think it is disconcerting because Conrad’s view of the world is a contradiction in terms.

D. The Dangers of a Disillusioned Idealist.

Conrad’s world views, according to Jasanoff, were derived from his personal experiences which were filled with hardships and disappointments.  Conrad was a Polish refugee from Russian oppression who had difficulty finding a country in which to settle.  He was from a self-styled aristocratic family but had to work as a young man in menial jobs and as an ordinary seaman.  He began his literary career writing popular sea stories, and had trouble being taken seriously when he began writing more serious fiction.[12]  He also suffered most of his life from clinical depression.  Jasanoff opines that Conrad had a “blighted childhood” that “inspired a fatalistic sense of the world as a realm where, no matter how hard you tried to make your own way, you might never slip the tracks of destiny.”[13]

Conrad’s parents were idealistic activists for Polish independence from Russia.  His antipathy to idealism seemingly was initially derived from the futility of their idealism.  His parents fought, and they and he suffered, as the Russians persecuted his parents for their activism.  Conrad’s anti-idealism also stemmed from his disappointment that what he remembered as the brotherly community of seamen on the ships on which he sailed did not prevail on land.  Conrad idealized merchant ships as cooperative societies in which superior authority was respected.  Based on his shipboard memories, Jasanoff claims, “he treasured a misty ideal of personal honor, commitment to duty, a community of people willing to sacrifice themselves for something bigger.”[14] Conrad’s dismay that he did not find this ideal being honored on land, especially among erstwhile idealists, was acute.

As a result, Conrad disdained idealism and saw himself as a realist.  Most critics have agreed, but I do not.[15]  I think that in Nostromo he is a disillusioned idealist who has become a pessimist but is still an idealist.  Conrad rejects idealism but still judges the world in idealistic terms.  What he is really condemning is idealism that takes the form of ideology, as opposed to idealism that stems from an ethical ideal.  While condemning idealism in toto, he applies an ethical ideal to those he is condemning.  This contradiction between what he preaches about the world and what he practices in his judgments of the world leads him to a view that is solipsistic, dystopian, and hopeless.  It is a view that is unrealistic, unhelpful, and unnecessarily demoralizing.  It is inherently inconsistent, and I think Conrad does not really believe in it.  Its inconsistencies undermine the book’s credibility, and they are disconcerting to readers trying to make sense of it.

I will elaborate on this argument and make some comparisons of Nostromo with Chinua Achebe’s novel Things Fall Apart which, like Nostromo, is a story about a third-world society in crisis.  In Achebe’s book, what had been a fairly stable and well-functioning African peasant society is disrupted and ultimately destroyed by an invasion of Europeans, many of whom are idealists of one sort or another intent on civilizing the natives according to Western standards.[16]

E. Idealism as Ideology and Ethics: Give Peace a Chance.

Conrad makes a sustained attack on idealism in Nostromo, blaming the mess in Costaguana primarily on idealistic politicians blinded by egoism.  He then, however, applies to the behavior of these misguided idealists an ethical ideal even as he condemns the idealism in them.  This contradiction between what Conrad preaches and what he practices is disconcerting.

Idealism is commonly defined as the pursuit of perfection.  “Pursuit” is the operative term in the definition.  Perfection is to be perpetually sought after but is never expected to be achieved.  One can, however, distinguish between conceiving idealism ideologically and conceiving it ethically.

An ideology is a body of doctrines, a set of fixed ideas with definite meanings and boundaries.  It is something to be followed and tends to be exclusive.  It defines right versus wrong, and good versus bad.  Those who don’t agree with your ideas become the opposition, and even the enemy.  In Nostromo, Conrad portrays ideals as ideologies and idealists as people who seek to impose their fixed ideas on the world.  These people all too easily become fanatics in their single-minded idealism, and it is a fanaticism rooted in egoism.  The ideologue insists that reality must fit into the Procrustean bed of his/her ideas.

Idealistic ideologies in Nostromo include Charles Gould’s ideal of a capitalist society in which peace and prosperity would be ensured by the mutual interests of all people in the free flow of commerce.  This was a favorite ideal among the upper classes in Western Europe during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.  Guzman Bento’s ideal was an authoritarian society in which peace and prosperity were ensured by the iron fist of a dictator, himself.  This was, and still is, a favorite ideal among the upper classes in Eastern Europe, among other places.

Idealism is for Conrad the insanity of the man with a fixed idea who will destroy anything in the way of his ideal of perfection, and who will slaughter people to save the world from their imperfections.  In this conception, idealism almost invariably generates the fear, hatred and vengeance it is supposed to eliminate.[17]

An ethic can be described as a set of principles and a process of applying those principles.  An ethic can be seen as an image of perfection which has core values but can be fuzzy around the edges.  Images can be more flexible in form and substance than ideas. An ethic can be more inclusive than an ideology, and an image can be seen as overlapping with those of others, or at least not inconsistent with them.  People’s ethical principles don’t have to match exactly for them to cooperate with each other, and the way ethical principles are applied can depend on the situation.  Idealism can then respond creatively to changes in circumstances, rather than ignore or deny them.  It can be pragmatically inclusive, rather than ideologically exclusive.

The Golden Rule of “doing unto others as you would have them do unto you if you were in their situation” is an example of such an ideal.  The Golden Rule is flexible, inclusive, and its operation depends on the circumstances in which it is applied.  And it is the antithesis of egoism, requiring empathy, the acceptance of differences among people, and cooperation with others in devising the solution to a problem.  There is a version of the Golden Rule in almost every religious and philosophical system in the world, which makes it a potentially unifying ethic.

The Golden Rule is the sort of “one for all and all for one” ethic that often arises spontaneously among people working on a project together.  If Conrad had been interested in exploring the ways of life of ordinary people in Costaguana, he could probably have conceived it in operation, at least to some extent, among the Costaguanan peasants and workers.  Chinua Achebe portrays this sort of cooperation among ordinary people in Things Fall Apart and it cushions some of the pessimism in his book.

With the exception of Mrs. Gould, Conrad does not explore this concept of idealism in Nostromo or imagine how it might have played out among ordinary people.  If he had, the book might have had a different outlook.  Of course, it is not for a reader to tell an author what book to write.  The author gets to make that choice.  It is ironic, however, that the Golden Rule ethic exemplified by Mrs. Gould is the ideal to which I think Conrad himself holds, and by which he judges the book’s characters.  With the exception of Mrs. Gould, they all fail to be empathetic, inclusive, cooperative or pragmatic.  Each and every one of them runs off on his own tangent, insisting on his way is the only way.  And Conrad condemns them for failing to practice what I am describing as the Golden Rule ideal.  This generates a disconcerting contradiction between the anti-idealism he preaches in his narrative and the idealism he practices in his judgments.

Bob Dylan expressed something of the Golden Rule ethical ideal in his “Talking World War III Blues.”  The song is a dystopian dream of the world following a nuclear war.  In his dream, the narrator of the song sees himself as the only person left in the world.  He is lonely and does not see the purpose in living.  The narrator then goes on to say that he is finding more and more people who are having dreams of nuclear war in which they are the only ones left.  So, he concludes his song with a proposal to everyone who is having such dreams that he will let them be in his dream if he can be in theirs.  The song is an ironic expression of hope in the midst of dystopian fears.  It is a minimalist hope, but still something to build upon.

F. A Fall from Grace without Grace: Humpty Dumpty at least had a wall.

The society Conrad portrays in Nostromo is ostensibly a fallen world of the sort we would today call a dystopia.  Almost everything that can go wrong in the book goes wrong.  There are no good options from which characters can choose.  They are continuously faced with trying to choose between the lesser of two evils, making that choice, and then having the greater evil come to pass.  Things fall apart and apart in an endless dissolution.

The problem with this picture is that you cannot fall if there is nowhere to fall from, and things cannot fall apart if they were never together.  That is what is missing from the story.  There is no starting point or reference point in the book that is not dystopian, and seemingly no time when things were not dystopian.  There is, therefore, no benchmark by which you could say that society has fallen.  This is not merely an analytical problem — about how to measure the amount the society has fallen – it is a disqualifier.  You cannot describe a situation as a mess if you have no conception of what a non-messy situation would be like, or from whence the mess derived.

In Things Fall Apart, for example, Achebe begins the book with a description of Nigerian society before the Europeans arrived, and then proceeds to describe how the advent of the Europeans brought down the hero of the book and his society.  One thing led to another, and things fell apart.  This is the way most stories work, even those that like Nostromo begin in media res, that is, in the middle of things.  Things cannot fall apart if they were never together.  A story either begins with a “Once upon a time” description of an original status quo or refers to some prior time and situation that constitutes a reference point for the story’s action.

Not so with Nostromo.  We are apparently supposed to believe that chaos reigned eternally in Costaguana.  That cannot be, and Conrad knows it.  He also knows that his readers will inevitably try to make sense of the Costaguanan situation by imagining some sort of normalcy that preceded the cycle of crises in which Costaguana is caught.  In failing to provide an explicit normalcy reference point, Conrad is, in effect, cheating.  He is counting on the fact that humans will instinctively and intuitively fill in the gaps in a story, so that we readers will imagine a benchmark with which to describe Costaguanan society as fallen.

Conrad seemingly does not want to admit that ordinary Costaguanans were ever able to exist peaceably and productively.  Conrad thinks the masses are irrationally emotional   He is not a democrat, and the word democrat is repeatedly used disparagingly in the book.  In Nostromo, brutes who disguise themselves as populist leaders mesmerize the masses.  Claiming to idealize “the People,” they sell dictatorship as democracy, and this ersatz democracy inevitably succumbs to “Caeserism.”[18]  Conrad prefers an aristocratic republic for Costaguana, but he cannot see how such a government can survive the idiocy of the masses and the malevolence of the demagogues.  The result is the vicious cycle of crises that he describes in the book.

But the reality is that the current state of chaos in Costaguana that Conrad describes could not exist without there having been some past state of relative normality, some functioning society of ordinary people, that underlies the present crisis and sustains the country even in the midst of the chaos. And Conrad knows this and knows better than he is letting on.  Conrad’s unwillingness to describe a past state of normality seems to be a function of his disdain for the Costaguanan natives who would, after all, be the ones who created and supported any such state of normalcy, and who he repeatedly describes as ignorant, incompetent and idiotic.

Conrad’s disdain of native Costaguanans in Nostromo, and his disregard of natives in his other books as well, has been described as racism by Chinua Achebe, among others.  I do not agree.  I think his disparagement of native peoples is primarily a function of Conrad’s class-ism, his disdain for the working classes.  Conrad was himself from an aristocratic family that fell on hard times.  His elitism and ignorance of how ordinary people live is evident in Nostromo.

Conrad is unwilling or unable to recognize that normality is a result of ordinary people doing ordinary things – growing food, making things, transporting stuff around, and providing necessary services, which are the foundation of any society.  Without this foundation, the elite classes could not engage in the shenanigans that he portrays in his book.  And as a reader, it is disconcerting trying to figure out how a society can be fallen from nowhere, and how an elite class can exist without a functioning underclass and a social system that supports it.

G. Solipsism without Sincerity: You talkin’ to me?

The world Conrad portrays in Nostromo is peopled with characters who are unable to make meaningful intellectual and emotional contact with each other.  It is a solipsistic world in which people essentially talk to themselves even as they talk to others, without making a real impression on each other.  Conrad seems to be saying that people cannot meaningfully understand each other, even if they try very hard.

In Nostromo, the Europeanized political elite, both the good guys and the bad, talk past each other, caught up in their respective egoistic ideals.  They also talk over the heads of the masses and there is nothing the ordinary people have to say to them.  In contrast, in Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, the European colonists often talk past each other, and there is very little meaningful contact between the Europeans and the Nigerian natives, but there is meaningful communication among the natives.  Conrad does not portray this sort of thing and, so, we are left with a picture of almost complete dysfunctionality.

The problem with this view is that in writing and publishing this book, Conrad seems to be assuming that he and his readers can make meaningful contact.  As such, he seemingly contradicts his book’s thesis in writing the book.  We have become used over the last century or so to writers who are intent on expressing themselves irrespective of their legibility to the reader.  But this was not the case with Conrad.  Nostromo is not a book that he just tossed off without caring if anyone read it or understood it.  Conrad was not a proponent of art for art’s sake, or an expressionist writer.  Nostromo is a complex book, but it is essentially a conventional narrative.  It is also a passionately written book, and Conrad cared very much about reviews of the book and readers’ responses to it.[19]

As such, Conrad’s conclusion that people cannot make meaningful contact seems to be contradicted by his premise in writing the book, and Conrad’s message does not seem consistent with his medium.  It can be disconcerting for readers to try to understand a complex narrative that seems to be saying that we cannot understand each other anyway.

H. The Moral of the Story: What can we say and do?

Nostromo is a depressing book that almost saps the reader’s will to work for progressive social change.  Conrad would seemingly have us believe that the situation in Costaguana, and seemingly in the world at large, is hopeless, what with inevitably egotistic people invariably talking past each other, and unable to act in meaningful consort.  But I don’t think he believes it.

Conrad refused to find hope or to imagine hopeful choices in the Costaguanan situation.  He proclaimed a reign of hopelessness.  But in so doing he contradicted himself.  For despite their depressing circumstances, the surviving characters in Nostromo were all planning for what they hoped would be a better future as the book ended. So, there must be at least some hope.

To be hopeless is to be without future prospects.  No one but a dead person is without future prospects.  You may feel hopeless, but it is instinctive to be continuously looking forward to the next moment.  That’s just part of the psychology and physiology of life.  Arthur Schopenhauer, for example, whose philosophy of hopelessness depressed generations of Germans during the nineteenth century, was something of a gourmet who, despite his philosophy, had no problem with looking forward to his next meal. That was a man with hope.

Since hope is inevitable, the better part of wisdom would seem to be to seek the best of all possible choices even in a worst of all possible worlds.  It does no harm to a truthful picture of a grim reality to look for possibilities of change for the better, even if they are slight.  We have no choice but to choose, so the reasonable thing is to choose what looks better, rather than pretend to give up but still go on looking forward to your next good meal, as Schopenhauer did, or your next book, as Conrad did.

Idealism is not necessarily a vehicle for egoism.  Mrs. Gould exemplifies this point, and while she is portrayed as an exception in Nostromo, this is not inevitably the case.  In Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, the main character is an egotistical idealist, whose egoism brings him down and significantly harms his community.  But Achebe also credibly portrays many people whose idealism is combined with a form of communitarianism, and who subordinate their egos to the needs of the community.  That idealism is a hopeful point in an otherwise dystopian picture.

Conrad described in Nostromo a situation in which political regimes rapidly succeeded each other and tried to overturn whatever the previous regime had done.  This scenario led him to despair of progressive social change.   But social change is a long-term game, and while progressives need to survive short term reversals of fortune, progress depends on long-term cultural and demographic changes, especially among ordinary people.

Conrad refused to focus on the ordinary people, and so he missed the underlying foundation of Costaguanan society.  In turn, he missed an opportunity to imaginatively explore the possibilities for long-term cultural and demographic changes in a country like Costaguana that might support progressive social changes.  In focusing his story solely on elite politicians whose primary goal was to overthrow each other and impose their own will on the world, Conrad, not surprisingly, came to a pessimistic conclusion about the possibilities of social reform.

We are seeing this sort of short-term political reversal in the United States today under the Trump presidency and with right-wing Republican ascendancy in Congress and on the Supreme Court.  These right-wing politicians are trying to overturn whatever had been achieved by the progressive presidency of Barack Obama and Democratic Congressional majorities.  A short-term focus on politicians and politics might lead progressives today to a pessimistic conclusion like Conrad’s.  But I think that would be a mistake.

As I write this essay in March, 2018, long-term underlying cultural and demographic changes seem to favor progressives in the United States, which perhaps helps explain the extremism and seeming desperation of the regressives in charge of our federal government and some of our so-called red-state governments.  Using something like the Golden Rule as our image of the ideal, and keeping our eyes and efforts on the long-term while seizing whatever short-term possibilities that present themselves, we can rescue hope from despair.  And while realizing what is missing from Nostromo – interest in ordinary people and on how things get done in everyday life – we can read the book for the beauty and insights it affords without losing our political and intellectual will.

[1] Kenneth Ligda. “Nostromo.” Yale Modernism Lab at

[2] Maya Jasanoff.  The Dawn Watch: Joseph Conrad in a Global World. New York: Penguin Press, 2017.

[3] Maya Jasanoff. The Dawn Watch: Joseph Conrad in a Global World. New York: Penguin Press, 2017. pp.82, 283.

[4] Joseph Conrad. Nostromo. New York: Barnes & Noble Classics, 2004. p.350.

[5] Joseph Conrad. Nostromo. New York: Barnes & Noble Classics, 2004. p.160.  Also p.357.

[6] Joseph Conrad. Nostromo. New York: Barnes & Noble Classics, 2004. pp.231, 357, 384.

[7] Joseph Conrad. Nostromo. New York: Barnes & Noble Classics, 2004. p.453.

[8] Maya Jasanoff. The Dawn Watch: Joseph Conrad in a Global World. New York: Penguin Press, 2017. p.9.

[9] Matthew Waller. “The Allegorical Nostromo.”

[10] Jacek Gutorow. “The Paradoxes of the European Narrative: Edward Said’s Reading of Joseph Conrad.”  4/22/08.   Kenneth Ligda “Nostromo.” Yale Modernism Lab.           M. Wilding. “The Politics of Nostromo.”  2014.

[11] Kenneth Ligda “Nostromo.” Yale Modernism Lab.  Jacek Gutorow. “The Paradoxes of the European Narrative: Edward Said’s Reading of Joseph Conrad.”  4/22/08.

[12] Ironically, Conrad disdained Herman Melville as merely a writer of popular sea stories. The irony is that Melville faced the same prejudice as Conrad when Melville turned from writing adventure sea stories to more serious fiction such as Moby Dick. See Maya Jasanoff. The Dawn Watch: Joseph Conrad in a Global World. New York: Penguin Press, 2017. p.11.

[13] Maya Jasanoff. The Dawn Watch: Joseph Conrad in a Global World. New York: Penguin Press, 2017. p.53.

[14] Maya Jasanoff. The Dawn Watch: Joseph Conrad in a Global World. New York: Penguin Press, 2017. p.149.

[15] M. Wilding. “The Politics of Nostromo.”  2014

[16] Chinua Achebe. Things Fall Apart. New York: Anchor Books, 1994.

[17] Joseph Conrad. Nostromo. New York: Barnes & Noble Classics, 2004. p.350.

[18] Joseph Conrad. Nostromo. New York: Barnes & Noble Classics, 2004. pp.372, 384.

[19] Maya Jasanoff. The Dawn Watch: Joseph Conrad in a Global World. New York: Penguin Press, 2017. p.305.


Hope for humanity in Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead. Just how dead are they? A fateful misstep need not be a fatal mistake.

Hope for humanity in Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead.

Just how dead are they?  A fateful misstep need not be a fatal mistake.

 Burton Weltman

 “We cannot choose our circumstances,

but we can always choose how we respond to them.”



1.Prologue: Existentialist Nightmares.

“We are our choices.”   Jean Paul Sartre.

We have all had this nightmare.  You are trapped in a scary place that you can’t get out of, or you are being chased by someone or something that you can’t get away from.  You almost get free, but then not.  You are baffled and can’t figure out what to do.  But, just before you are done in by whatever is threatening you, you wake up, shaking, but free of the danger.

That is essentially the experience of two minor characters from Hamlet as they are portrayed in Tom Stoppard’s comic play Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead.  Caught in what appears to them, and to us in the audience, as a nightmare, they stumble about, futilely trying to figure out what is going on, and how to get out of whatever it is.  The dreamlike quality of their existence is exemplified by their frequent inability to remember things, including the events of their own lives before they were caught up in Hamlet’s story.  They also repeatedly find themselves in scenes of Hamlet and not remembering how they got there.  It is like a nightmare.  Only they don’t wake up.  And they are done in at the end.[1]

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern is a play set inside another play, Hamlet, and it runs in tandem with the other play.  Whatever happens in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern is bounded and limited by what happened in Hamlet.  That is, nothing can occur in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern that would conflict with or contradict the script of Hamlet.  Rosencrantz and Guildenstern must work out their own fates within the confines of Hamlet’s tragedy.

Stoppard is generally considered to be an existentialist playwright.  Existentialism is generally considered to be a philosophy of choices.  In Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, Stoppard has created a situation of severely constricted choices.  He has, thereby, pushed the existential situation to its extremes.  Since Hamlet ends with an announcement of the deaths of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, we the audience watch the humorous antics of the two bumbling characters in Stoppard’s play with muted horror because we already know the ending of Hamlet.  But we still hope against hope that they will wake up to their situation and escape what seems to be their fatal fate.  They don’t wake up from their nightmare and they don’t escape, but could they have?  I think this is the crucial question of the play.

Were there options that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern could have taken within the confines of Hamlet that would have allowed them to survive, despite the announcement of their deaths at the end of that play?  Were there choices that Stoppard could have had them make that would have enabled them to survive, despite being constrained by the terms of Hamlet.  I say “Yes,” there were.  They could have survived, and that is the main point of Stoppard’s play.

2.The Plot: Such as it is.

“Man is conditioned to be free; because once thrown into the world, he is responsible for everything he does.”  Jean Paul Sartre.

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are two young Danes, apparently Prince Hamlet’s childhood friends and classmates at Wittenberg University in Germany.  They have been summoned by the newly installed Danish King Claudius to the King’s castle to spy on Hamlet.  Hamlet has recently returned from Germany to attend the funeral of his father, the late King Hamlet.  Prince Hamlet is behaving in suspicious ways, which is of concern to the new King since he had secretly murdered Hamlet’s father in order to gain the throne, and he would not want the Prince digging up the dirt on him.  Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, seeming to have no real option but to obey the command of their King, agree to watch Hamlet and report on him.

The two characters spend the rest of their own play, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, wandering around inside Hamlet’s play.  They show up at key dramatic moments of Hamlet, openly appearing in the action of Hamlet where they have been written into the script of that play, secretly behind the scenes of Hamlet where they are not in the Hamlet script.  They observe the action in Hamlet, but play no active role in the course of either Hamlet or Rosencrantz and Guildenstern.  They are passive actors in both plays.  But, although Rosencrantz and Guildenstern were by the terms of their play unable to alter the course of Hamlet’s play, that does not mean they were without options and choices.

3. A story inside a story: An existentialist dilemma.

“I rebel; therefore, I exist.” The Myth of Sisyphus Albert Camus.

Every story, whether factual or fictional, begins with some sort of “Once upon a time” scenario.  “Once upon a time” creates the existential situation within which the characters in the story will make their way.  It provides the background and the setup of the story, that is, the status quo from which the story proceeds.  The story’s plotline will then disrupt the status quo – that is the gist of the story – and the story will generally end with some new ordering of things.

The opening is critically important to a story because the opening usually portends the story’s ending.  The setup of a story generally indicates who and what is important, and inclines events in a certain direction.  The options allowed to the characters, and the existential choices they can make, are defined and constrained by the opening setup.  It is like setting up a debate.  Whoever gets to set the terms of the debate is most likely to win, and if you join the debate on someone else’s terms, you are most likely to lose.

It is often the case in a fictional story that if you are not there at the beginning, you are likely to meet a bad end.  That is one of the problems facing Rosencrantz and Guildenstern in their play.  They are there at the beginning of their own play, but they are almost an afterthought in Hamlet’s story and, as such, they were expendable to Hamlet.  But that does not mean they weren’t important to themselves, or that they were expendable to the play Rosencrantz and Guildenstern.

Tom Stoppard did something quite unusual in this play, for which there isn’t even a name.  He told a story about two minor characters in Hamlet, and did so within the confines of that play.  It is a story inside a story, which is different than a play within a play, such as the one Shakespeare included in Hamlet.  The play within Hamlet was part of the plot.  It was a device used by young Hamlet to further his goal of unmasking Claudius as a murderer.  But Stoppard’s play is not part of the plot of Hamlet.  It occurs in, but is not of, Hamlet.  

It is not uncommon for an author to piggyback his work onto an existing popular story, either a story by another author or by him/herself.  This can be done in a variety of ways.  There are prequels that tell the backstory of the original work; interquels that fill in happenings taking place between events in the original story; sidequels that tell of things taking place at the same time as the original story; and sequels that tell of what happened after the end of the story.

In the case of Hamlet, a prequel might have described young Hamlet’s childhood. An interquel might have described what Laertes did while he was away from Denmark during the middle of the play.  A sidequel might have described what Fortinbras was doing before he appeared at the end of the playAnd a sequel might have described what happened in Denmark after all the main characters in the play were dead and Fortinbras had taken over.  In composing each of these types of “quels,” an author must be consistent with the original story, but he/she is essentially operating outside of that story and has a good deal of latitude in composing his/her own plot.

But Stoppard did something else.  He placed his story directly inside the story of Hamlet and, thereby, narrowly limited the scope of his invention and his characters’ options.  His two main characters must repeatedly come up to the mark of their roles in Hamlet.  Whatever they do or wherever they go, they must be back to make their scheduled appearances in Hamlet, and nothing they do can conflict with their roles in that play.

But that does not mean that Stoppard had no latitude within which to play, or that his characters could not act on their own behalf in their own play.  There was wiggle room in Hamlet within which he could create and they could react.  So, how could Rosencrantz and Guildenstern have escaped their seemingly fated deaths, and why didn’t they?

4. Free Will, Determinism, and Compatibilism: Finding Existential Wiggle Room.

“Freedom is what we do with what has been done to us.”   Jean Paul Sartre.

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern is a philosophic play that raises many questions, including questions about whether people are capable of willing freely what they choose, or are bound by deterministic chains of cause and effect.  Most critics claim that the play is intended to illustrate the randomness of the universe as it appears to us and the determinism of the universe as it is in reality.  The play, they say, emphasizes the contradiction between the way in which we experience the world as freedom and the way in which the world really is.

Stoppard, these critics argue, portrays Rosencrantz and Guildenstern as “moving towards an inescapable fate,” despite what they experience as “the randomness of life.”  The two characters are chronically befuddled, and have no real options or choices.[2]  The play shows people “at the mercy of external forces,” and “unable to make any significant choices.”[3]  It is “a play about the tricks of fate” which render Rosencrantz and Guildenstern “incapable of helping themselves,” and make them symbols of  a helpless and hopeless humanity.[4]  In this view, Stoppard portrays the world as “absurd” and “uncertain,” and the “hapless” Rosencrantz and Guildenstern exemplify humanity’s inability to make significant choices and take meaningful action.[5]  In sum, the moral of the story is the futility of free will and the fatality of determinism.

In support of this reading, critics point to views in the play expressed by the Player and seconded by Guildenstern.  Stoppard identifies the Player as the chief of the actors hired by Hamlet to enact the play within his play.  These actors play a small role in Hamlet but a big role in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern.  Much of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern consists of discussions between Rosencrantz, Guildenstern and the Player about life and living.  Consistent with his vocation as an actor, the Player holds that all of life is scripted for us, and that our role in life is to follow the script.  “We have no control,” he declaims. “Wheels have been set in motion,” and “Events must play themselves out,” he insists.[6]

The Player’s is essentially a deterministic view of life.  It is a view, however, that relegates most of us to playing subordinate roles in scripts written by and for others, putting ourselves in the service of others, and without any say-so.  The actors in the Player’s troupe are, in fact, willing to perform any script and any action for anyone.  They don’t even need to be paid money.  They merely need an audience.  Significantly, they apparently moonlight as male prostitutes.  Guildenstern buys into the Player’s rationale, and it is on this basis he and Rosencrantz act.

Many critics claim that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern represent anti-existentialist characters because they repeatedly refuse to choose, and just meander along within Hamlet’s play.  The play, in this view, is a refutation of existentialism.  But that is not accurate.  Existentialism claims that we cannot refuse to choose.  We are choosing all the time, even when we refuse to choose.  Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, and especially Guildenstern, may not want to choose, but they are choosing anyway.

While the setup of the play mitigates against the idea of free will – Rosencrantz and Guildenstern must perform their roles in Hamlet and are not free to choose otherwise – there is a third way of looking at the human condition that encompasses both free will and determinism.  And it is a way that is consistent with the existentialist point of view with which Stoppard is usually associated.  It is called compatibilism, and I think it is what the play is mainly about.  Compatibilism proposes that “My action is free, because the event which immediately precedes it is an act of will; it is necessitated because it comes at the end of a series each of whose items is a necessary consequence of its predecessor.”[7]

That is, in retrospect, we can look at a result and see how a chain of causes and effects led to the result.  But, we can also see the choices that were made in creating that chain of events, and we can see that if different choices had been made, the chain would have been changed and the result would have been different.  In turn, we can prospectively see the options we have and choices we must make, which will be the beginning of another chain of events.  We have free will, but it operates within the constraints of our context which consists of chains of events that we cannot change.  For Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, their context is the play Hamlet, but they are free to move about within the constraints of that play.

Compatibilism essentially encompasses what existentialists describe as the facticity and anxiety of the human situation.  The facticity is that we find ourselves in a universe that we didn’t make or choose, that we don’t control, and that is essentially indifferent to our existence.  The anxiety stems from the fact that we must choose what to do, and how to make our way.  Refusing to choose, which we are free to do, is still choosing.  And we can’t make choices or make our way on our own.  We must do what we can with what we have, and do it with others.  Others are part of our context.  The stories of our lives are inevitably intertwined with others, and we can do nothing without the cooperation of others.

“I’ll let you be in my dream if you’ll let me be in yours,” intones Bob Dylan in a song about surviving the nightmare of nuclear war.  No one’s survival is secure without the survival of the others.[8]  Hamlet tried to compose and enact his story on his own, not trusting to include even his best friend Horatio in his plans, and Hamlet failed badly.  His story became a bloody nightmare that none of the principles escaped.  If only he had confided to Horatio about his interactions with the Ghost, the play may have ended very differently, and he might have survived.  So might have Ophelia, Polonius, and Laertes, who were innocent bystanders to Hamlet’s story, as were Rosencrantz and Guildenstern.  Rosencrantz and Guildenstern made a similar choice to spin out their tale on their own, without confiding in Hamlet or anyone else, and they, too, did not survive.  But they could have.

5. In for a penny, in for a pounding: Rationale vs. Rationalization.

“Try again.  Fail again.  Fail better.” Samuel Beckett.

Literature is full of twosome heroes and heroines.  The pairs can take different forms and serve different functions within the stories in which they appear.  Sometimes, as with Sherlock Holmes and Doctor Watson, the dominant character is the smarter of the two and comes up with the answers to their problems.  Other times, as with Don Quixote and Sancho Panza, it is the subordinate character who is smarter and has the answers.  Quixote is a scholar while Panza is illiterate, but Quixote is also a fool and Panza is clever.  In the play Waiting for Godot, to which Rosencrantz and Guildenstern is often compared, the dominant character, Vladimir, is the more intellectual of the two.  He frequently philosophizes and rationalizes about the predicament in which he and his sidekick, Estragon, find themselves.  And his conclusions generally help.  So, the two of them are able to work through their crises, and make their situation bearable.[9]

In Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, the dominant character, Guildenstern, is the more intellectual of the two, but his rationalizations of their situation only lead the two of them into deeper trouble.  Rosencrantz is intellectually feeble, but intuitively a genius.  In the 1990 movie version of the play, which was directed by Stoppard, Rosencrantz repeatedly stumbles into inventing all sorts of modern devices.  He also repeatedly tells Guildenstern that something is dreadfully wrong with the situation they are in and that they should get out of there fast.  Guildenstern, however, dismisses Rosencrantz’s inventions in the movie as silly and, in both the movie and in the script for the play, he dismisses Rosencrantz’s rationales for leaving as foolish.  Guildenstern, instead, constructs rationalizations for their staying the course.  So, they stay.

Guildenstern’s rationalizations essentially take the form of what in scientific circles during Shakespeare’s time were known as “saving the appearances.”  “Saving the appearances” was a phrase that from ancient times through the seventeenth century was applied to the attempts of astronomers to make sense of the geo-centered Ptolemaic model of the universe.  The Ptolemaic model put the Earth at the center of the universe and portrayed the other planets and the stars as revolving around the Earth.  Over the course of the centuries, however, astronomers discovered new planets and stars that did not fit within the original geo-centered model.  So, they adduced increasingly weird orbits for these planets and stars – epicycles and other wrinkles – in order to save the appearances of the model.  It was a brilliant construction that occupied some of the best minds for two millenniums, but it became very complicated and convoluted.

The Ptolemaic system was finally rejected by Copernicus and his followers during the sixteenth century in favor of a simpler helio-centric model that encompassed all of the observations of the planets and stars without all of the complications of the geo-centered model.  Conservatives, including the Catholic Church, resisted the new model on the grounds that it demoted the place of humanity within God’s creation and conflicted with passages in the Bible.  For the Catholic Church of that time, science was supposed to serve dogma, and facts were supposed to be massaged to uphold what was considered Gospel.  Willingness to go along with saving the appearances in astronomy and other scientific fields became a life and death issue for scientists in some Catholic countries, as Galileo, among others, found out.[10]

The Copernican system was, however, readily accepted in Protestant countries such as Shakespeare’s England, where the practice of saving the appearances of preconceived notions through rationalizing away inconsistent evidence was rejected by empiricists such as Frances Bacon.  For many Protestants, science was a means of discovering God’s word as it was embodied in the physical universe.  So, facts mattered, even in the study of alchemy, magic and ghosts, which were important subjects of study for scientists such as Bacon and, later, Newton.  And theories must conform to the facts.

The conflict between facts and preconceived notions, and the problems that arise when people try to save the appearances of preconceived notions, is a theme in many of Shakespeare’s plays.  This includes Hamlet, as when Hamlet adjures Horatio that “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”  Facts count, Shakespeare repeatedly emphasizes, even if they don’t fit our cherished theories.  The problem with trying to save the appearances is also a main theme in Stoppard’s plays, as exemplified in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern by Guildenstern’s rationalizations of his and Rosencrantz’s situation.

Guildenstern seems unable to think outside the box, to use the current terminology for the problem of trying to save appearances.  He has been caught up within the Hamlet story and cannot think his way out.  He is brilliant and knowledgeable, but terminally narrow-minded.  “We are presented with alternatives,” he intones, “But not choice.”  “We’ve been caught up” in Hamlet’s story, he explains, and “there is a logic at work.”  So, he concludes, he and Rosencrantz should just relax and “be taken in hand and led, like being a child again.”[11]

Rosencrantz is slow-witted and ignorant, and doesn’t even seem to know there is a box.  But that enables him to be inventive (look at all the things he unwittingly contrives) and intuitive.  He can think outside the story, and can think pragmatically rather than dogmatically.  He knows trouble when he senses it.  Rosencrantz is a wise fool, a type that is a favorite of Stoppard.[12]

6. What is to be done?

 “There is only one day left, always starting over: it is given to us at dawn and taken away from us at dusk.”  Jean Paul Sartre.

Given that they are caught in Hamlet and can’t contravene that script, there are still things Rosencrantz and Guildenstern could have done in their own play that might have saved them from the death announced in Hamlet.  Built into Stoppard’s play are opportunities for Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to make choices that could have changed things for them.  They were not fated to act as they did, even if they failed to take advantage of the opportunities that Stoppard provides for them.   They could, for example, have confided in Hamlet at various points of their play.  Shakespeare provides a perfect opening for such a confidence in Hamlet when Hamlet first encounters Rosencrantz and Guildenstern.

After welcoming Rosencrantz and Guildenstern as old friends, Hamlet asks “Were you not sent for?…Come, come deal justly with me.”  Hamlet wants to know whether the King has set them to spy on him.  Rosencrantz and Guildenstern equivocate.  Hamlet repeatedly presses them, conjuring them “by the rights of our fellowship, by the constancy of our youth, by the obligation of our ever-preserved love.”  Prompted by Rosencrantz, Guildenstern finally admits “My lord, we were sent for.”  The three of them then engage in desultory conversation, ending in the coming of the actors whom Hamlet will hire for his play.

This was a perfect opportunity within the context of Hamlet for Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to consult with Hamlet in the context of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern.  Having admitted that the King had sent for them to spy on Hamlet, they could reasonably have followed up that admission with a discussion with their old friend about what was going on.  This is particularly the case since in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, the two of them quickly come to their own conclusion that Claudius murdered Hamlet’s father.  Once they have reached that conclusion, it is unreasonable of them not to open up with Hamlet.  But they choose not to.

There were many opportunities within both Hamlet and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern for them to consult with Hamlet.  But Rosencrantz and Guildenstern hem and haw throughout the play, saying to themselves that they want to talk with Hamlet, but unable to get themselves to do it.  They even practice various ways in which to begin conversations with Hamlet, but never carry them out.  In any case, Guildenstern’s rationalizations in defense of doing nothing keep them from saying or doing anything that might change their situation.  That was their choice.

Their rationalizing and equivocating come to a head when the two of them discover in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern that the letter from Claudius that they are carrying to England requests that the King of England kill Hamlet.  At that point, Rosencrantz has had enough.  He wants to confide in Hamlet.  “We’re his friends,” Rosencrantz insists.  How can they be accomplices to the murder of Hamlet?

But Rosencrantz’s humanity is overridden by Guildenstern’s callousness and cowardice, as he once again rationalizes in favor of doing nothing.  Death isn’t so bad, he claims, and Hamlet’s death would be just one man dying so, “from the social point of view…the loss would be well within reason and convenience.”  Besides, Guildenstern concludes, “there are wheels within wheels,” and who are they to try to change things.  It is bad faith rationalization at its worst, and it is that which leads to their own deaths.[13]

If Rosencrantz and Guildenstern had confided in Hamlet at any point in the play, the three of them could have worked out a joint plan for saving all of their lives.  Since Hamlet was explicitly doomed by the script of Hamlet – he dies onstage in full view of the audience – such a plan would not have saved him.  But it could have worked for Rosencrantz and Guildenstern.  Their deaths are only announced in Hamlet, not actually seen by the audience.

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern could, for example, have colluded with Hamlet to change Claudius’ letter as Hamlet does in Hamlet. They could then have faked the deaths of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, so as to avoid any blame and punishment that Claudius might hit them with because his scheme for Hamlet’s death had failed.  Hamlet’s later comment to Horatio in Hamlet that he cared not that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern might be dead could then be part of this joint plot.  Stoppard could have written something like this into his play – the key is faking the deaths of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern – without contradicting Hamlet.  He didn’t.  Why not?

7. Comedy, Tragedy, and a Good Conscience.

“Life begins on the other side of despair.”  Jean Paul Sartre.

“The play’s the thing wherein to capture the conscience of the king,” Hamlet proclaims.  So, too, the play may be the thing to capture the consciences of the audience for Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, or maybe touch their vanity.  Hamlet is a tragedy.  A tragedy has been described as a story of too much of a good thing becoming bad.  Tragedy generally involves a character who pursues a too narrowly prescribed good too far until it turns on itself, becomes bad and precipitates a disaster.  The character’s “tragic flaw” is a lack of perspective, the failure to see things in a broader context, for example failing to recognize that one person’s good may be someone else’s bad, and an individual’s good ultimately depends on the good of all.[14]

Tragedy is a story of hubris versus humility, the failure of the tragic character to recognize his/her personal limits, and to reconcile contradictions within him/herself, within his/her society and/or between him/herself and society.[15]  In the case of Hamlet, it is arguably his hubris combined with his gullibility toward the ghost who, I think, is an agent of the Devil, that leads almost inevitably to disaster.[16]  In any case, a tragedy may contain humor, but it is not expected to be funny.

In contrast with Hamlet, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern is a comedy.  It is expected to be funny.  A comedy has been described as a humorous conflict between folly and wisdom, foolish people and wise people, with a happy ending that results from the wise peacefully overcoming the fools and their foolishness.  In comedy, the problem is created by someone acting out of stupidity or ignorance, “the intervention of fools.”  The solution is for the fools either to be corrected or constrained.[17]

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are both fools.  Much of their story is also very funny.  But the play ends with their being hanged.  That’s not funny.  And while they don’t know what’s in store for them as they wander through their play, we do.  How can an audience in good conscience laugh at the high jinks and foolishness of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern knowing that the play will end after the somber line “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are dead?”

I don’t think an audience can in good conscience laugh at the thought of the deaths of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern.  I think that either members of the audience must be people of bad conscience, smug in their superior knowledge to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, and callous at the death of two fools – losers in the parlance of Donald Trump – or audience members must believe that somehow Rosencrantz and Guildenstern aren’t really dead.  And maybe they aren’t.

8. Epilogue: Life after reported death?

Estragon: “I can’t go on.” 

Vladimir: “That’s what you think.” 

Waiting for Godot.  Samuel Beckett.

When his demise was wrongly reported in the newspapers of his day, Mark Twain quipped “The reports of my death have been greatly exaggerated.”  Might the same be true of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern?  In his last speech before seemingly being executed, Guildenstern muses that “Well, we’ll know better next time.”  Next time?  What’s with this “next time?”

In the movie version of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, the actors that Hamlet has hired show Rosencrantz and Guildenstern how to fake being hanged.  At the end of the movie, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are shown being hanged.  But are they?  Maybe it’s a fake hanging.  In the play, they merely disappear at the end, and it is not clear how they died.  Or maybe they didn’t.  Rosencrantz and Guildenstern make farewell speeches, but maybe they are just fooling everyone, including us in the audience.  Are Rosencrantz and Guildenstern actually dead?

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern is full of trickery and slight-of-hand, starting with the opening scene in which a flipped coin repeatedly comes up heads, seeming to contradict the laws of probability.  Then there are the numerous inventions that Rosencrantz stumbles onto in the movie version of the play, which was directed by Stoppard.  In the movie version, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are also repeatedly saved by chance or random choice from discovery or death.  Faking their deaths at the end of the play could be Stoppard’s last bit of trickery, a trick played on the audience.

In any case, dead or alive, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern is, I think, ultimately a hopeful play.  Despite operating within an extremely narrow range of options, being tied into and almost tied up by the script of Hamlet, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern still had options to survive the demise announced for them in that play.  If they didn’t survive, it was a result of their own lack of imagination and their own choices.  In his farewell speech, Guildenstern muses that they should have just said “No” when they were summoned by the King.  And they should have.  A moral of their story is that you don’t want to get caught up in someone else’s story in which you are just a throwaway bystander.

So, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern made a fateful misstep into Hamlet’s story.  But that fateful misstep need not have become a fatal mistake.  Rosencrantz and Guildenstern implies that in even the tightest and direst situations, there still may be leeway and hope.  And just when you may seem to be without options, there may still be choices you can make.

B.W. 12/17

[1] Tom Stoppard. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead.  New York: Grove Press, 1967. pp.16, 38.

[2] Evar Johnson. “Characters in search of a purpose: Meaning in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead.”

[3] “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern as Existential Antiheroes.” The Stanford Freedom Project. Fall, 2015.

[4] Peter Travers. “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead.” Rolling Stone. 2/18/91.

[5] Shmuel Ben-Gad. “A Semi-Existentialist Comedy: Tom Stoppard’s ‘Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead.’” American Culture. 5/20/15.

[6] Tom Stoppard. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead.  New York: Grove Press, 1967. pp..25, 63, 79.

[7] Anthony Kennedy. A New History of Western Philosophy. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2010. p.666.

[8] Bob Dylan. Talkin’ World War III Blues.

[9] For an analysis of the play as a love story, see my post on this blog “Waiting for Godot: Why do we keep waiting? Hope among the Hopeless.”                       

[10] Thomas B. Kuhn. The Copernican Revolution. New York: Vintage Books, 1959.

[11] Tom Stoppard. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead.  New York: Grove Press, 1967. pp.39- 40.

[12] For an analysis of Arcadia that discusses this theme, see my essay on this blog entitled “Entropy, Negentropy and Chaos in Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia: Must We Face the Music or Can’t We Just Dance?”

[13] Tom Stoppard. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead.  New York: Grove Press, 1967. p.110.

[14] Paul Goodman. The Structure of Literature. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1954. pp.35, 172.

[15] Kenneth Burke Attitudes toward History. Boston: Beacon Press, 1961. p.37.  Aristotle. Aristotle’s Poetics. New York: Hill & Wang, 1961. p.81-83.

[16] For a discussion of the ghost in Hamlet as an agent of the Devil, see my post at this blog website “Better Dead than Red: Hamlet and the Cold War against Catholicism in Elizabethan England.”

[17] Aristotle 1961, 59.  Burke 1961, 41.  Goodman 1954, 82-100.

Entropy, Negentropy and Chaos in Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia: Must We Face the Music or Can’t We Just Dance?

Entropy, Negentropy and Chaos in Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia:

Must We Face the Music or Can’t We Just Dance?

Burton Weltman

“Hegel remarks somewhere that all facts and personages of great importance in world history occur, as it were, twice.  He forgot to add: the first time as tragedy, the second as farce.”    Karl Marx.  The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon.

Prologue: Dancing in and out of time.

Tom Stoppard’s play Arcadia is the story of a family and some of the family’s friends that takes place in two different time periods, the early 1800’s and the early 1990’s.  The play is billed as a dramatization of the theories of entropy in physics and Chaos in math.  The characters and events of the later period appear to be pale reflections of those in the earlier period.  Their seeming insipidity could arguably be a result of entropy, that is, the eventual decline of the universe from vividness and order into blandness and disorder, as predicted by the Second Law of Thermodynamics.  But, maybe not.  Arcadia is a funny play, full of witty byplay and intellectual conundrums.  It challenges our minds, hearts and funny-bones, and leaves us much to ponder.

At the end of the play, two couples, one from each time, are dancing.  The first couple consists of a sparkling intellectual in his early twenties and a brilliant girl of sixteen from the 1800’s.  They are waltzing gracefully in time to the music.  We know that the girl will tragically die in a fire later that evening, and that the man will then spend the rest of his life as a hermit.  The second couple consists of a run-of-the-mill scholar in her late thirties and a mute boy of fifteen from the 1990’s.  They are dancing awkwardly, and they are often out of time to the music.  The difference in the ages of the people in this second couple, along with their clumsiness, makes them look almost farcical.  We don’t know what will become of them in their futures.

So, is this a funny but depressing play about human history repeating itself in cycles that descend toward decrepitude?  Are we supposed to perceive the moral of the story as the inevitability of entropy in human affairs?  In this context, must we see the waltzing of the first couple as a symbolic evocation of Irving Berlin’s melancholic “Let’s Face the Music and Dance,” as one critic has suggested?  Is their dancing an omen of the end of things, and a warning that we must stoically resign ourselves to it?[1]

Or might we instead focus on the efforts of the second couple, and maybe see their stumbling about as the first tentative steps toward a new way of dancing, something less formal than a waltz, but perhaps more energetic. Something like “rock & roll,” not as graceful as a waltz, but reeking with negentropy, the opposite of entropy.  In sum, does this last scene foreshadow the inevitable decline of humanity, or might it be a sign and source of hope for the future?  The conventional view of the play takes the former view.  I take the latter, and I think it matters.

Fractals, Feedback Loops, Self-Similarity, and Strange Attractors: Chaos in Action.

Stoppard has said that Arcadia was inspired by James Gleick’s book Chaos: Making a New Science in which Gleick explains the origins and evolution of Chaos Theory in mathematics.  It is a relatively new theory because it requires an immense number of calculations to apply it, and it is only recently that computers have been developed that can effectively perform those calculations.  The play discusses Chaos Theory, but also exemplifies it in many ways.

Chaos Theory (capital “C”) is an attempt to find order in what seems to be disorder and, as such, is not the same as chaos (small “c”), which is actual disorder.  Chaos Theory is an antidote to the helplessness and hopelessness of what seems to be chaos in those cases where order actually prevails beneath apparent disorder.  It is also, thereby, arguably a counter to theories of entropy that take every appearance of disorder as an instance of the descent of the universe into universal randomness, blandness, and disarray.  The moral of Chaos Theory seems to be that all may not be as bad as it seems.

Gleick says that while “the Second Law [of Thermodynamics] is a rule from which there appears no appeal,” it is still the case that “Nature forms patterns.  Some are orderly in space but disorderly in time, others orderly in time but disorderly in space.”  It is the goal of Chaos Theory to identify patterns where they least seem to exist.[2]  In the course of the play Arcadia, the waltzing teenage girl from the early 1800’s, whose name is Thomasina, ostensibly discovers the basic ideas of both the Second Law of Thermodynamics and Chaos Theory.  Lacking computers, she is unable to fully develop her ideas.  It remains for later generations with adequate technology to rediscover these theories and be able to develop them.

The development of Chaos Theory was inspired in recent years in large part by the inability of meteorologists to reliably predict the weather more than two days in advance, despite having computers and algorithms that can accommodate a myriad of factors that make up the weather.  Beyond two days, the algorithms go wild and chaos ensues in the calculations.  This apparent chaos in the weather, and in other systems that are similarly unpredictable, seems to be a function of two main factors.[3]

First, systems that do not have strong foundations and/or built-in inertia are liable to undergo big changes in their behavior as a consequence of small changes in their surrounding conditions, and long-range predictions thereby become precarious.  Since most systems inevitably experience at least some small changes in their operating conditions, long range predictions about those systems will be thrown off unless they have strong foundations and/or inertia.  This is the problem with predicting the weather.  A host of volatile elements determines the weather, and small changes in any of those elements can throw off weather forecasting.  The oft cited example is that of a butterfly flapping its wings in Brazil leading to a typhoon in Asia.

Chaos Theory seemingly has democratic implications.  It claims that the smallest actions can initiate the biggest results, such as the flapping of a butterfly resulting in a typhoon.  It is, thereby, bottom-up in its implications.  It stresses the importance of little guys and factors that are often considered too unimportant to be respected.  In this regard, Chaos Theory can be regarded as a cautionary tale, akin to the warning sounded by Cinderella in Stephen Sondheim’s musical Into the Woods, “You move just a finger, Say the slightest word, Something’s bound to linger, Be heard.”  But it can also be taken as a hopeful idea, as in Dr. Seuss’s Horton Hears a Who, in which the slightest squeak by the smallest Who is enough the save the universe of the Whos.  So, when Gus and Hannah dance at the end of the play, maybe the song is “This Could Be the Start of Something Big?”

A second factor involved in creating chaos is the feedback that a system encounters.  If the feedback that results from a system’s operations is stronger than the system’s foundations and/or inertia, then the system’s patterns and predictions will be thrown off.  This is the case with weather.  A strong wind can literally blow a weather system in a different direction.[4]  At the same time, implicit in this theory is the hope that if you build a strong enough foundation, your system or structure may withstand the whirlwinds of change.  And that foundation may be democratically made up of many small individuals or things, as represented in the political slogan “The people united cannot be defeated.”

It is not the case, however, that chaos is always disorderly.  Chaos theorists claim that one can often find orderly patterns underneath the superficial disorder of many systems, albeit they are likely to be patterns that are unstable and cannot be predicted in advance.  Chaos Theory holds that systems may behave in logical and deterministic ways, even though their patterns can only be discerned in retrospect.   And the patterns may change in an instant.  Gleick notes that Chaos (capital “C”) is “a delicate balance between forces of stability and forces of instability.”[5]

Two of the main types of Chaos patterns are fractals and attractors, which can exist separately or can combine to make what is called a strange attractor.  It is not possible to predict the behavior of either fractals or attractors in advance, but they can be seen in retrospect as orderly and deterministic.  A fractal is a shape that reproduces itself through self-similarity.  A fractal can be successively subdivided, with each iteration essentially the same as the previous one, albeit slightly different and smaller than the last.

Fractals can be fitted together like pieces of a puzzle so that an infinite number of ever smaller replications can be fitted within a delimited space.  Fractals are, thereby, the most efficient way to maximize the coverage of the surface of a space with shapes.  Fractals are also the most efficient way to create a complex orderly pattern because all that needs to be done is to replicate the initial shape in decreasing sizes that fit in with the rest.  Blood vessels in a human body are spaced in a fractal pattern, thereby most efficiently distributing blood throughout the body.  Veins in a leaf are also spaced in a fractal pattern, as are many other natural systems.

A formula for producing fractals is to take the solution of an “X & Y” equation, plug the “Y” back into the equation as the new “X” and repeat the equation, then do this again and again ad infinitum.  When you plot the results of the equation on a graph, you get new shapes that are similar but not the same as the previous ones, thereby adding a new layer of complexity to the system.  This is the formula that Thomasina ostensibly discovered during the early 1800’s.  In the case of fractals, smaller does not mean lesser.  The new shapes are as complex as the previous ones.  And there are an increasing number of the new shapes as they decrease in size.  Fractals can seemingly, therefore, function as agents of negentropy, as they energetically reproduce themselves in an ongoing and orderly complexity toward infinity.

An attractor is the locus of another form of Chaotic pattern.  It is a point around which successive iterations of a loop swirl.  It represents a form of topology, which is the twisting and stretching of a loop into an everchanging series of shapes.  The loops that swirl around an attractor can take on weird shapes that seem unrelated except that they focus on the attractor point.  The loops may or may not decrease in diameter as they replicate, and may or may not descend toward the point.  Weather patterns apparently swirl around attractors.  Finally, there are strange attractors that combine a swirling motion with a fractal structure.[6]

So, what does all this have to do with Arcadia?  The question is whether the plot of the play might be interpreted as exemplifying entropy theory, Chaos Theory, or both.   And if the plot exemplifies Chaos Theory, is it in the form of an attractor, a fractal, or both as a strange attractor?  I think the answer to both questions is “both” and, again, it matters.

The Plot: Back to the Future, Back to the Past, Again and Again.

Arcadia is set in a mansion on the English country estate of Sidley Park.  All of the action takes place in one room, and cycles back and forth in that room between the early 1800’s and the early 1990’s.  There are four main human characters in each period.  The estate of Sidley Park also functions as a major character in the play, in that it is, I think, the strange attractor around which the play revolves.  It is a place of civility that fosters intellectual curiosity and honest, if sometimes heated, debate.  It is also a locus of romance and amorous adventures.  The two different time periods are like loops that whirl around an attractor, and the human characters and events are like fractals, that is, iterations which are similar but still significantly different.

The main character from the early 1800’s, and for the entire play, is Thomasina, a precocious teenager who critiques the conventional Newtonian physics of her time by asking why when she stirs jam into her pudding, she cannot then unstir it.  Likewise, when a pudding has cooled down, why won’t it ever spontaneously heat back up.  “Newton’s equations,” Thomasina contends, “go forwards and backwards, they do not care which way.  But the heat equation cares very much, it only goes one way.”  Based on her pudding question, and speculations on why steam engines run down, she ostensibly discovers what was later known as the Second Law of Thermodynamics.

Similarly, based on her critique of conventional geometry, which focuses on simple shapes such as squares that go through predicable changes, Thomasina develops the formula described above for creating self-replicating fractals. Fractals are complex geometric shapes that go through unpredictable changes based on repeatedly taking the “Y” from an “X & Y” equation and plugging it back into the equation as the new “X.”  Thomasina takes a leaf and proposes to graph it using her new ideas.  The formula she ostensibly developed is a mainstay of Chaos Theory.

The second key character from that time is Septimus, who is Thomasina’s tutor.  He is a genial Enlightenment intellectual and a friend of the poet Byron, who is himself an unseen visitor at Sidley Park.  A third character is Chater, a second-rate poet with whose wife Septimus has been sleeping.  He provides a frequent target for Septimus’ wit.  The fourth main character is Noakes, a landscape architect who is transforming the Sidley Park terraces from a Classical formal garden into a Romantic wilderness, complete with an ersatz hermitage.  This change is taken by characters in both the earlier and later periods to symbolize the decline of reason and orderliness and the rise of emotional and intellectual disorder.

The main characters in the later period are similar to those in the earlier, almost fractal-like, but with different genders and roles.  The central character is Hannah, a second-rate historian who has written a biography of one of Byron’s mistresses.  She is doing research on a hermit who might have lived in the hermitage in the Sidley Park gardens during the early nineteenth century.  She is a mundane but solid thinker, and is intellectually similar to Septimus but less brilliant.

Hannah’s main foil is Bernard, a second-rate literary critic who is doing research on the poet Chater, and is trying to prove that Byron killed Chater at Sidley Park in a duel over Chater’s wife.  He is a bold thinker, like Thomasina, but a cad and usually wrong in his speculations.  He is an egotistical and cynical proponent of the idea that nothing ever really changes.

Valentine is a graduate student in zoology and a computer geek, who is trying to apply Chaos Theory to the reproductive cycles of grouse.  He comes to realize that Thomasina developed the basic ideas of entropy and Chaos Theory before her time, and before there were computers that could do the complex mathematics required to fully explicate and apply those theories.  Valentine explains the theories to Hannah and to the audience.  He is a proponent of the idea that things really do change, and that science makes a positive intellectual difference.

Gus is a mute teenage member of the Sidley Park family.  He gives Hannah an apple that she puts down on a table, and that is eaten by Septimus later in the play, albeit earlier in time, which is a paradox.  The apple incident seems to be an instance of time working backwards as well as forwards which, in turn, seems consistent with Newtonian physics and contrary to the Second Law of Thermodynamics.  Gus does not talk, but his actions provide a link between the two periods, and they are perhaps vehicles of energy and a symbol of negentropy.

The main action in the earlier period centers around Thomasina’s scientific discoveries and Septimus’ amorous adventures.  Septimus is repeatedly confronted by Chater for having slept with Mrs. Chater, and for having written a scathing review of Chater’s poetry.  Septimus also later sleeps with Thomasina’s mother before finally falling in love with Thomasina.  There is a lot of witty dialogue among the characters in this earlier period, full of high cultural references.

The main action in the second period centers around Bernard’s researches and theories as to Byron and Chater, and Hannah’s researches on the alleged hermit.  Bernard makes some shrewd initial deductions about Byron being at Sidley Park in 1809, but then his thinking goes awry as conflicting evidence overwhelms him, and he repeatedly misconstrues the evidence.  His theories about Byron killing Chater prove to be nonsense.  It is much like what happens to weather forecasting when you try to extend your predictions too far.  Under persistent challenging from Hannah, he is finally forced begrudgingly to admit the failure of his theories.

Meanwhile, Hannah comes to the correct conclusion that Septimus was the hermit who was reported to have lived in the garden, and that a mass of papers covered with odd scribblings that had been discovered in the hermitage were his futile attempts to work out Thomasina’s theories by hand.  Hannah’s work is conducted in a less speculative way than Bernard’s, and she gets assistance from Valentine in explaining entropy and Chaos Theory.

Much of the dialogue in the later period consists of insulting repartee between Hannah and Bernard, civil but biting.  Hannah wins that battle.  There is also some unconsummated sexual tension between Hannah and Bernard, and a pervasive sextual tension among the other characters, with an occasional offstage consummation.  This keeps things lively in the house and in the play despite all the talking.

But the brilliance of the characters and conversation in the earlier period are in sharp contrast with the more desultory dialogue in the later period.  The earlier period is filled with poets and innovators.  They are creators.  The second period is dominated by historians and critics who merely study the work of past creators, and a guy who is studying the mating habits of grouse.

The play ends with the characters in the earlier period having a formal ball, and the characters in the later period having a costume ball in which they dress up as imitations of people in the earlier period.  Characters from both periods are on stage at the same time, but are seemingly unaware of each other.  The universe of the play seems to be winding down until, I contend, Gus asks Hannah to dance.

Conventional Interpretations: Facing the Music.

“Soon, we’ll be without the moon…So while there’s moonlight and music and love and romance, let’s face the music and dance.”  Irving Berlin.  Let’s Face the Music and Dance.  [7]

Arcadia is widely considered to be “a masterpiece.”[8]   It has been hailed as “the finest play written in my lifetime” by Brad Leithauser[9] and “the greatest play of our age” by Johann Hari.[10]  Like Hari, most critics see the play as “a laugh-filled tragedy”[11] with a depressingly resigned conclusion about life, the universe, and everything.  Entropy is the reason for this.

Early in the play, when Thomasina explains her theory of entropy to Septimus, he complains “So we are all doomed!”, to which Thomasina replies “Yes.”  Similarly, later in the play, after Valentine has explained entropy to Hannah, she asks him “Do you see the world as saved after all?” and he replies “No, it’s still doomed.”  Thomasina’s and Valentine’s replies have been taken by most critics as reflecting the viewpoint of the play that entropy is unstoppable and irreversible.  The play, says Leithauser, is “a sort of dance to the music of time,” and the song is Irving Berlin’s melancholic “Let’s Face the Music and Dance.”[12]  “The elegance of the past is gone,” was similarly the summary of the play by another reviewer.[13]  “Ergo, the future is disorder,” concluded yet another.[14]  The play, in this view, is all about entropy, and about history repeating itself in cycles that spiral downward, with each iteration duller and deader than the last.

The moral of the story according to these critics is that since entropy is humanity’s fate, the play’s main message is a challenge to our courage.  The play forces us to face the question of “How should we live with the knowledge that extinction is certain – not just of ourselves, but of our species?”[15]  In this conventional view, the play’s answer is contained in Hannah’s stoical statement that “It’s the wanting to know that makes us matter,” even if we are doomed.  For most critics, the play confronts us with the tragedy of knowing our fate and being unable to do anything about it.  I don’t agree.  I think these critics missed the point that the play is not only about entropy, but is also about Chaos.

An Alternative Interpretation: Dancing in the Streets.

  “Callin’ out around the world, are you ready for a brand new beat?”                        Marvin Gaye.  Dancing in the Streets.[16]

“Septimus, what is carnal embrace?”  This is the opening line of the play, spoken by thirteen-year-old Thomasina to her tutor Septimus.  She goes on to say that she had heard the butler saying that Mrs. Chater had been discovered in a carnal embrace in the gazebo, and she wants to know what that means.  Septimus is nonplussed.  He has set Thomasina the task of finding a solution to Fermat’s famous Last Equation, which was still unsolved in the early 1800’s.  It is clearly not a problem that he expects her to solve, and the task is merely intended to keep her busy while he is doing other things.  But Thomasina finds questions about sex more interesting.

Sex and sexual tension play a big role in this play.  There is a lot of sexual attraction and action.  It keeps the characters in motion, and keeps up the audience’s interest, in the midst of all the mathematical, historical and philosophical discussions that are the meat of the play.  In turn, while sex is a source of confusion and disorder in the play, and in human society generally, it is also a vehicle for bringing couples together and a means of fractal-like human reproduction.

Thomasina’s opening question, therefore, introduces the basic themes of entropy and negentropy, and order and disorder, that the play explores.  The subsequent dialogue between Thomasina and Septimus is itself like a Chaos pattern spiraling toward an attractor.  Septimus wants to avoid her question about carnal embrace, but Thomasina persists.  Their discussion circles around and around the definition of sex, and around what Septimus has been up to with Mrs. Chater.  It homes in eventually on the point to which it has been tending, a biological explanation by Septimus of sexual intercourse and an admission by him that he has had sexual intercourse with Mrs. Chater in the gazebo.

Sex is an attractor in this instance and throughout the play.  It is an unpredictable wildcard that can disrupt the most orderly patterns of life.  But it is also follows a pattern, especially in the case of Mrs. Chater, who will seemingly sleep with any male in sight.  There is an underlying order and a negentropic energy to life with her around.  But the same is the case with the others in the play, as the characters buzz around each other like bees in a Sidley Park flower bed.

Entropy in the universe seems to be accepted as a universal law in and by the play but, I would contend, entropy in society and human affairs is not.  While the characters in the later period of the play are less interesting than those in the earlier period, people of that later time have computers that can deal with the mathematics of Chaos and entropy that people in the earlier time couldn’t.  Valentine can do computations in a minute that Septimus apparently could not do in a lifetime.  And women like Hannah in the later period do not have to hide their lights under a bushel, as did Thomasina in the earlier period.  This addition of women to full equal status might make for greater social chaos in the 1990’s, but also for complexity in the play that is energizing.

I think that Septimus’ message to Thomasina about things that are seemingly lost in history trumps Hannah’s resignation to historical entropy. When Thomasina laments that so many of the great books in the ancient Library of Alexandria have been lost to us because of the destruction of the Library, Septimus says that nothing is lost in the long course of history.  “The missing plays by Sophocles will turn up piece by piece,” he says, “or be written again in another language,” as will everything else that makes life interesting.  Things come and go, and come again, just as good and maybe even better.  This is exactly what happens in the course of the play as Thomasina’s lost copy books that contained her ideas turn up, and it turns out that her lost ideas had been perfected by subsequent generations.

Chaos Theory is two sided as to the ability of humans to predict and plan.  On the one hand, it introduces uncertainty in planning by telling us that many things tend to fall apart at the slightest touch and then seemingly become chaotic.  On the other hand, it provides us with some measure of comfort by telling us that what seems like chaos may in fact be orderly, albeit unpredictable. That things can’t be exactly predicted does not mean they can’t be planned and prepared for.  And a way to avoid chaos in the first place is to construct systems that have foundations strong enough to withstand changes in conditions and blowback, whether they be social systems, computer programs, political organizations, healthcare plans, or whatever.  In the play, this seems to be the case with Sidley Park, despite periodic changes to the gardens.

I think the moral of the play may be that just when things looked bleak, in the midst of a costume party in which characters from the 1990’s were dressed up as pale imitations of characters from the early 1800’s, a mute boy gets up and dances with a pretty woman.  And maybe, you get yet another rebirth of an even better rock ‘n roll.  That, I think, is a better interpretation of the play.

So why does it matter?  It is not appropriate to read things into a play that are not there.  But when one can interpret the play as proposing either that the glass is half empty, which is the conventional view of Arcadia, or that it is half full, which is mine, I think it is important to at least recognize the plausibility of the latter interpretation.  It matters because we live in an age that seems to have abolished utopian ideals, big dreams of social justice, and theories of universal harmony that energized people during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.  We no long hear much about fulfilling the political ideals of liberty, equality and fraternity, or the ethical ideal of doing unto others as you would have them do unto you, or the social ideal that the self-development of each should be the basis of the self-development of all.

As exemplified by the conventional interpretations of the play Arcadia, we seem to be overwhelmed with weltschmerz and demoralized by the idea of entropy.  But Arcadia seems to say that this is a self-fulfilling prophecy.  The big ideals that we think we have left behind, that we think we are too mature to entertain any longer, are promoted and practiced in the play by the characters at Sidley Park and by the place itself as an institution.

Marshall McCluhan used to claim that the medium was the message, and I think that is the basic message in this play.  Underneath all of the swirling and the cyclical recurrences that characterize the people and events in Arcadia, the hopefulness of the place, Sidley Park, is the underlying message of the play.  And it is the sort of place that can perhaps be replicated on ever larger scales, so that the great ideals and the big negentropic dreams of the past might in the future be resurrected and implemented.

Postscript: Karl Marx and Historical Cycles.

Karl Marx is more commonly known for his economic theories of capitalism, and for having his name misappropriated in support of oppressive Communist regimes, than for the historical and political writings for which he was better known during his own day.  Marx was for many years a highly regarded foreign correspondent for Horace Greeley’s New York Tribune newspaper, and was well known in the United States for his analyses of political events in Europe.[17]

Marx’s famous comment that history repeats itself, occurring first as tragedy and then as farce, was directed at the ascension of Napoleon III to the title of Emperor of France in 1851, a title previously held by his Uncle Napoleon I during the early 1800’s.[18]  The tragedy to which Marx was referring was the overthrow of the first French Republic in the early 1800’s by Napoleon I.  That republic had emerged out of the French Revolution against King Louis XVI in the early 1790’s, and had reflected the hopes of the revolutionaries for a society based on the political ideals of liberty, equality and fraternity.  Napoleon I was a villain, but he was a great villain who did enormous things, until he was himself overthrown as a result of losing the Napoleonic Wars (he even had a twenty-year series of wars named after him), and he was replaced by a new King.

Napoleon III became emperor by overthrowing the second French Republic that had emerged after a second French Revolution, this time against King Louis Philippe.  The second republic had projected even greater social goals than the first, with economic justice as well as political democracy as one of its aims.  Napoleon III was a villain, but a pale and paltry replica of his uncle.  Marx, with his comment about history repeating itself, was mocking this cycle of kings, republics, and emperors, that had resulted in the poltroon Emperor Napoleon III.

In proposing that history repeats itself, occurring first as tragedy, then as farce, Marx did not suggest what the third, fourth and subsequent cycles of history would be like.  When he wrote about the ascension of Napoleon III in 1852, he could not have foreseen the way in which the cycles would continue in France.  What actually happened was that Napoleon III was overthrown in 1871 as the result of losing a war with Prussia.  He was followed by another French Republic, which was itself overthrown by the Nazis and the dictatorial Petain government during World War II.

The Nazi and Petain regimes were, themselves, then overthrown as a consequence of losing the war, and were replaced by yet another French Republic.  This republic extended its goals even further than the previous republics to encompass religious, ethnic and gender justice, but it has wavered between more and less democratic forms to the present day.

Marx’s comment about history repeating itself came at only the beginning of this cyclical series of absolutist and republican, authoritarian and democratic, progressive and reactionary regimes in France.  Similar cycles ran their courses in other parts of the world.  Do these cycles represent entropy, with the later regimes invariably paler and farcical reflections of the earlier.  Are these cycles evidence of an entropic decline of society into lameness and listlessness?

If one looks at the stature of the leading characters involved in these changes, one might answer this question with a “Yes.”  With respect to France, comparing Napoleon I with Napoleon III, or Charles de Gaulle with Emmanuel Macron, the differences seem obvious.  But if one looks at the lot of ordinary French citizens, comparing the lives of most people during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries with the lives of most French people today, I think one must conclude with a “No.”  As part of each cycle, republican governments have become socially and politically more progressive.  And this has been the case in most places around the world, despite problems of poverty, oppression and warfare that many people in many countries are still forced to endure.

Life is less oppressive today, and living standards are higher, for a higher percentage of the world’s population than in the past, and life is also more complex.[19]  While the physical universe may be falling prey to entropy, the social universe seems to be subject to negentropy.  The relatively simple order of a slow-moving agricultural society has been replaced in most parts of the world by the complex structures and the high-powered energy of urban, industrial and post-industrial societies.  The setting of Arcadia in Sidley Park exemplifies this change.  In the early 1800’s, places like Sidley Park were at the economic, social and political center of English society.  In the 1990’s, Sidley Park is merely a resort for recreation and reflection, surviving on the fringes of an urban society.

This is by no means to say that life has become the best in the best of all possible worlds, or that things might not get much worse rather than better.  The political cycle in the United States that has given us the horrendous farce of President Donald Trump following close upon the tragedy of President George W. Bush, with the decency of President Barack Obama as an interlude, is proof of this.  The problem we most urgently face today, however, is not the entropic death of a cooling universe, but the negentropic heat-death of a nuclear war or global warming.  It is the catastrophic danger of too much heat, not too little, that is the problem.

When facing the possibility of disaster, finding hope where it can be sighted is an important part of trying to avoid catastrophe.  In this context, conventional interpretations of Acardia that pessimistically focus on the inevitability of entropy seem not only wrong but wrongheaded in contributing to the disaster the critics bemoan.  Even if history is sometimes tragical and sometimes farcical, sometimes for better and sometimes for worse, Arcadia seems to support the conclusion that as unpredictable as historical comings and goings may be, there is hope for a better future.  So long as the music plays on and people continue to dance.

[1] Brad Leithauser. “Tom Stoppard’s ‘Arcadia,’ at Twenty.”  The New Yorker. 8/8/13.

[2] James Gleick. Chaos: Making a New Science. New York: Penguin Books, 2008. p.308.

[3] James Gleick. Chaos: Making a New Science. New York: Penguin Books, 2008. p.20.

[4] James Gleick. Chaos: Making a New Science. New York: Penguin Books, 2008. p.284.

[5] James Gleick. Chaos: Making a New Science. New York: Penguin Books, 2008. p.309.

[6] James Gleick. Chaos: Making a New Science. New York: Penguin Books, 2008. pp.103-105, 109, 139, 227.

[7] Irving Berlin. Let’s Face the Music and Dance. 1936.

[8] Chris Jones. “’Arcadia’ brims with intelligence in Writers’ bright new house.” Chicago Tribune. 3/24/16.

[9] Brad Leithauser. “Tom Stoppard’s ‘Arcadia,’ at Twenty.”  The New Yorker. 8/8/13.

[10] Johann Hari. “Is Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia the greatest play of our age?” Independent. 5/21/09.

[11] Johann Hari. “Is Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia the greatest play of our age?” Independent. 5/21/09.

[12] Brad Leithauser. “Tom Stoppard’s ‘Arcadia,’ at Twenty.”  The New Yorker. 8/8/13.

[13] Sharon Kilarski. “Theater Review: ‘Arcadia.’” Epoch Times. 8/31/16.

[14] Chris Jones. “’Arcadia’ brims with intelligence in Writers’ bright new house.” Chicago Tribune. 3/24/16.

[15] Ben Brantley. “The 180-year Itch, Metaphysically Speaking.” The New York Times. 3/17/11.”

Johann Hari. “Is Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia the greatest play of our age?” Independent. 5/21/09.

[16] Marvin Gaye. Dancing in the Streets. 1964.

[17] Isaiah Berlin. Karl Marx: His Life and Environment. New York: Oxford University Press, 1959. pp.184-185.

[18] Karl Marx. The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon. New York: International Publishers, 1963. p.15.

[19] Richard Easterlin. “The Worldwide Standard of Living Since 1800.” Journal of Economic Perspectives, Vol.14, #1. Winter, 2000. pp.7-26.

Sartre’s No Exit as A Rorschach Test. Why don’t they leave when they get the chance? Is it Bad Faith or The Look?

Sartre’s No Exit as A Rorschach Test.

Why don’t they leave when they get the chance?

Is it Bad Faith or The Look?

Burton Weltman

“Freedom is what we do with what is done to us”

          John-Paul Sartre.

Prologue: Looking for an Honest Man.

Diogenes the Cynic, so the story goes, spent his life searching for an honest man.  So, too, I think, did Jean-Paul Sartre, and his play No Exit is an instance of his search.  The thesis of this essay is twofold: (1) The play is best seen as a dramatization of Sartre’s philosophical concept of “bad faith” rather than, as it is usually interpreted, his concept of “the look.”  The behavior of the characters is intended to be seen as a function of their dishonesty toward themselves and each other, rather than their scrutiny of each other; and, (2) The play essentially functions as a sort of Rorschach Test of the good faith of its readers and viewers.  People who see the play as a reflection of “the look” will likely tolerate “bad faith” in themselves and expect it in others.  And that is the moral and morality of the story.

No Exit or In Camera: What’s in a Name?

“But, my dear man, reality is only a Rorschach ink-blot, you know.”

            Alan Watts.

No Exit is a one-act play written in 1943 by Jean-Paul Sartre.  First performed in 1944 in Nazi occupied Paris, its title in the original French is Huis Clos.  It portrays the tribulations of three recently deceased people who find themselves together in a small room in what they think is Hell.  They quickly realize that they are completely incompatible as roommates, with each one grating horribly on the other two.  They conclude that the almighty authorities of the universe have condemned them to being psychologically tortured by each other for all eternity.

The play is a dark drama that has been a mainstay of the stage from the mid-1940’s to the present day.  It is widely held to “capture Sartre’s existentialism,” and to dramatize the essentials of existentialist philosophy.[1]  Although reviewers rarely cite Sartre’s philosophical concepts of “the look” and “bad faith,” their interpretations almost invariably reflect those concepts because they are deeply embedded in the play.  Most reviewers focus on aspects of the play that reflect “the look” as representing the meaning and moral of the drama.  This essay presents an argument to the contrary.

There is very little action in the play.  It consists mainly of the three main characters talking to each other and looking at each other.  Each of the characters, a man and two women, has a long history of sociopathic behavior, the truth of which emerges as the play unfolds.  They all initially claim to be innocent of wrongdoing, but each one wilts under the grilling of the other two, and they all eventually admit to having repeatedly in their lives betrayed and abused those who loved and depended on them.

The man, Garcin, regularly abused his wife, and was executed for betraying his comrades and deserting the army in time of war.  Estelle, one of the women, was a female philanderer, who betrayed her husband, killed her unwanted baby, and effectively drove her lover to suicide.  Inez, the other woman, was a lesbian, who was killed by her abused lover, who also killed herself.

The characters constitute an anti-menage-a-trois.  Inez immediately becomes sexually attracted to Estelle, but Estelle is repelled by lesbianism.  Estelle is sexually attracted to Garcin, but Garcin insists on getting emotional support from her that she is incapable of giving.  Garcin, in turn, looks to Inez for emotional support, but she despises him and won’t give it.  They are committed narcissists, and are unwilling or unable to connect with each other.

Having realized their incompatibility, the characters make ineffective efforts to ignore each other.  But they are goaded and galled by the existence of the others.  So, the three of them emotionally torture each other in a vicious cycle of attraction and repulsion, and conclude that tormenting each other for eternity is their hellish fate.  This is also the conclusion that most interpreters of the play reach.  I don’t agree.

The French title of the play, Huis Clos, has usually been translated into English as No Exit. But the phrase huis clos literally means “closed door” in French, and colloquially means in camera.  In camera refers to a court proceeding that is conducted privately in a judge’s chambers behind closed doors.  Translating the play’s title as No Exit implies that the trial of the three characters is over, the judging has been finally done, and they have been conclusively sentenced to Hell.  In this view, the characters have become what they really are, their essences have been exposed to view, and there are no choices available to them to change their ways and their fates.

Translating the title as In Camera, however, implies that their trial is still ongoing, final judgments have not been rendered, and the characters might still be able to do things that could change their fates. That is, they have been placed in a sort of Purgatory, and are not necessarily permanently ensconced in Hell.  In this view, the action in the play is part of their trial, the authorities are watching and waiting to render a final judgment, and there are still choices the characters could make to change their ways and alter their fates.

The majority translation of the title is No Exit, the minority is In Camera.  Although few commentators on the play make explicit reference to Sartre’s philosophical works, their differences in translating the title of the play, and corresponding differences in interpreting it, can be translated into Sartrean philosophical terms.  Sartre published his major philosophical work Being and Nothingness in 1943, the same year as the play.[2]  In this book, he developed his ideas of “the look” and “bad faith” that are represented in the play

The majority view that the title should be No Exit corresponds with a view of the play that emphasizes Sartre’s philosophical concept of “the look.”  The minority view that the title should be In Camera corresponds with Sartre’s philosophical concept of “bad faith.”  Proponents of each view can point to elements of the play in support of their positions, and the play does not conclusively back either.

In fact, the play may function as a sort of Rorschach Test of the social inclinations of its audience.  A Rorschach Test is a bunch of images that a person is asked to make sense of.  The sense the person makes of the images is ostensibly an indication of how the person thinks, and what the person is like.  No Exit/In Camera seems to function in this way.  The way a person interprets the play may be an indication of how the person views him/herself and the world.

The primary thesis of this essay is that the play is best titled in English as In Camera, and best seen as a criticism of the three main characters as people who are guilty of “bad faith.”  A secondary thesis is that interpreting the play in terms of “the look” could reflect an inclination on the part of interpreters towards tolerating bad faith in others, and possibly themselves.

To See or Not to See, that is the Question: The Look and Bad Faith.

“You are not what you are, and you are what you are not”

            John-Paul Sartre.

Sartre’s concept of “the look” describes an ontological and psychological process that he claims is characteristic of most elementary interactions between people.  This process can be analyzed into three main components.  First, we live surrounded by other people who are continually trying to foist on us their image of what they think we are.  They take a sample of things we have done, and fashion out of those things a fixed and finished persona which they then use to judge us.  Second, we are continually being watched and judged by other people.  In the face of all that scrutiny, we are inclined to accept and act in accordance with the fixed and finished personas they have crafted for us.  Third, in accepting those fixed and finished images of ourselves, we end up being robbed by others of our freedom to choose who we will be and what we will do in the future.  The net result is that we can end up trapped in our past as it has been interpreted by others.  Ontologically and psychologically, we become their prisoners.[3]

In Sartre’s words, “the look” is an attempt by “the Other” to objectify me based on things I have done, and make me conform to his/her conception of me.  The Other tries to make me one-dimensional and predictable, which robs me of choice and a future different than my past.  In turn, I try to do the same to him/her.  “While I attempt to free myself from the hold of the Other, the Other is trying to free himself (sic) from mine; while I seek to enslave the Other, the Other seeks to enslave me.”[4]  Existence, in the face of “the look,” is a war of each against all, and all against each, with each person trying to assert his/her freedom by psychologically imprisoning the others.  In turn, other people are enemies that one must battle to be free.

In the majority view of No Exit, the most telling line in the play is Garcin’s despairing cry toward the end that “Hell is other people!”  This declaration has become an oft-repeated, iconic Sartrean line, and most critics would seemingly agree with the statement of one commentator that “No dramatist ever summed up a work more succinctly than Jean-Paul Sartre did in that line from No Exit.”[5] Garcin was prompted to this cri de coeur by his frustration at being stuck with two incompatible and incorrigible roommates, their mere presence galling him, especially their continually watching him.  He is in agony at being imprisoned by their scrutiny.    

The plight of which Garcin complains is an example of “the look.”  In the play, each of the characters attempts to pin a label on the others, and pin them down so that they can be controlled thereby.  Inez labels Garcin a coward.  Estelle labels Inez a pervert.  Inez labels Estelle a baby killer.  And so on.  In turn, each tries to escape the labeling of the others.  Looking is labeling, which is shaming, which is controlling.

Most commentators on the play seem to accept this situation as the moral of the play and of Sartre’s existentialist philosophy.  They claim that the characters are being seen by the others as they really are, that the characters cannot change who they are, and that the same goes for us in the audience.  Like the characters in the play, “We constantly feel scrutinized by others,” and this scrutiny reveals our essence, something we may have tried to cover up, but can do so no longer.[6]   The three characters in the play have become “finished fully formed souls facing who they are,”[7] and Hell is other people because other people “see us as we really are.”[8]

Or as another critic put it, Hell is “where the accumulated failures of a lifetime are endlessly enacted.”[9]  We are our history, and we are forever bound by the causal chains of past events as those events are seen by others.  Others’ views of us, thereby, become a prison from which we cannot escape, even in death.[10]  At least, that is what the characters claim and complain about.

But their views may not be Sartre’s view.  The three characters are, after all, sociopaths who seem to be continuing their lifelong practice of blaming everyone and everything else, other than themselves, for their problems.  I think the play is better seen as a portrayal of Sartre’s concept of “bad faith,” something of which the characters, and maybe many of us, are guilty.

Bad faith is the other side of the ontological coin from “the look.”  It, too, can be analyzed into three main components.  First, we tend to want to settle on fixed and finished images of ourselves.  These images may be of own fashioning or the fashioning of others, and may be favorable or even unfavorable.  In any case, we accept them as who we really are.  Second, we try to foist those fixed and finished images of ourselves on others.  We insist that the images represent the real and unchangeable us.  Third, we try to renounce our freedom to choose what we will do and be in the future, and thereby try to avoid responsibility for those choices.  We pretend that we have no choice but to be what we are, and no exit from where we happen to be.

Bad faith is an attempt to escape freedom.  But it is a lie, because ontologically we cannot escape from the fact that we freely choose our fates.  We exercise our freedom of choice even as we choose to renounce that freedom, and try to avoid committing ourselves to a future.  “We can define man only in relation to his commitments,” Sartre claims, and we are continually committing ourselves to one thing and then the next, whether we like it or not.  Commitment cannot be avoided.  “Bad faith is obviously a lie,” Sartre concludes, “because it is a dissimulation of man’s full freedom of commitment.”[11]  In this context, the attempt of the characters in the play to blame their miserable situation on the looks of their roommates or on the almighty authorities, rather than on their own choices, can be seen as an example of bad faith.

The problem of bad faith, but also its solution, arises from the fact of human self-consciousness.   As soon as a person becomes something, the person’s self-consciousness of that fact puts him/her beyond that something.  The person must then choose and commit to be something else.  Bad faith is an effort to deny the ontological reality that you are your future choices, and to avoid having to choose what one will do and become next, by holding permanently onto what one has already done or become.[12] It is an attempt to use the past to avoid having to make present choices toward the future.  But, Sartre counsels, the past is not who we are, but merely the material out of which we construct our future selves.  The future is everything.[13]

Self-consciousness is the source of the problem by making us aware of the fragility of ourselves, but it is also the solution in providing us the means of choosing to commit ourselves to the next thing, and to do it with others, not against them.  In this view, others are not the enemy, we are the enemy when we try to imprison ourselves in ossified self-images.  The only way out of that bind is to work with others.  We cannot escape others, and we would be nothing without them.  It is only through cooperating with them that we can be free.  When we freely commit with others to a common cause, we pull all of us into the future.

In this interpretation of the play as a portrayal of bad faith, the telling line is uttered by Garcin toward the middle of the play, when the characters are considering ways they might cooperate with each other and make their coexistence tolerable.  He says that “A man is what he wills himself to be.”  But Garcin does not follow up on this insight.  He merely talks about committing himself to change, but does not put that talk into practice.

The telling moment in this view of the play comes shortly after, when Garcin beats on the door, demanding to be let out, and the door opens.  He and the women are then faced with the choice of leaving or staying.  After brief consideration, each of them chooses to stay, and they close the door.  They then rationalize their decision along the lines of the devil you know is better than the one you don’t know, but it is clear they are committed to staying where and how they are.  They don’t want to change, and this is their free choice.  This commitment is an instance of ontological cowardice and bad faith in Sartrean terms.

“Bad faith” and “the look” are essentially two sides of the same coin.  Both are violations of the Sartrean principle that we are all caught up in a perpetual stream of becoming.  But seeing things in terms of “bad faith” forces you to take responsibility for where and what you are, and for making choices about what and where you will be next.  Seeing things in terms of “the look” gives you a way to rationalize doing nothing, and resigning yourself to the status quo.  It can be a cop out, and an instance of bad faith, as I think it is for the characters in this play.  Sartrean existentialism means that we are never a fixed and finished product, and that we are continually having to choose what we become next, whether we and others want to recognize it or not.

Existentialism and the Human Condition: Resignation or Resistance?

“Commitment is an act, not a word.”

            Jean-Paul Sartre.

If No Exit/In Camera was intended by Sartre to be what I have loosely called a sort of Rorschach Test, he does not make it easy to pass the test.  There is a lot of looking and a lot of “the look” in the play.  As it opens, all of the three characters are absorbed in watching what is being said about them by people they knew who are still alive on earth.  They complain that they are being defined and defiled by people whom they did not like and who did not like them.  Their past deeds are being used to hang a fixed image on them.  And they cannot do anything about it.  This is an example of “the look” in operation.

When these visions fade away, and the characters are cut off from life on earth, they begin watching each other.  The room they are in is small.  It contains three couches and an ugly little statue.  It has no mirrors.  There are no books.  The characters are unable to sleep.  There is nothing to do except think, talk, and look at each other.  With no mirrors and no one else with whom to talk, each can see him/herself only through the eyes and the words of the other two.  Since they are in perpetual conflict with each other, it is not a pretty picture that they each see of themselves.  This is another example of “the look” in practice.

From these scenes comes the majority’s interpretation that the play is based on “the look,” and that it espouses a misanthropic anti-social individualism.  The majority view accepts the resignation of the characters to their situation at the end of the play as the message of the play.  It is the triumph of “the look,” and the last line of the play ostensibly sums it up.  In this line, Garcin declares his and the other characters’ acceptance of an eternity of mutual incrimination and self-incrimination with the sigh “Eh bien, continuons.”  This line is usually translated as “Well, let’s get on with it,” but it literally means “OK, let’s continue” which is, I think, a better translation.  With this line, Garcon declares that the three of them have no choice but to continue what they have been doing, and most commentators agree.  But is that the intended message of the play?  I think not.

I think that “bad faith” trumps “the look” as the primary message of the play.  “The look” is what others try to do to me when they recognize my separate existence, and what I try to do to them in return if we are not mutually committed and engaged in a joint enterprise.  Social relations are antagonistic unless we are mutually committed and engaged in a joint enterprise.  Sartre explains that “I will always depend on my comrades-in-arms in the struggle, inasmuch as they are committed, as I am, to a definite common cause.”[14]  Comradeship in a commitment to a common cause can dissipate the effects of “the look.”  Failing to join with others, and merely accepting the effects of “the look,” is bad faith.

This view of the play is supported by the context of its original production.  Huis Clos was first performed in Paris during the Nazi occupation of France in World War II.  Sartre had previously been incarcerated by the Germans as a prisoner of war, but had escaped and then joined the underground French Resistance to the Nazis.  Working in the Resistance required intense collaboration with others, and perilous reliance on the courage and good faith of others.  It also required vigilance against Nazi collaborators and bad faith infiltrators.

Even as he was risking his life in the Resistance, Sartre daringly produced writings that could be interpreted as encouraging that resistance.  In this context, Huis Clos can be seen as having been “written in direct response to the intellectual paralysis of German-occupied Paris,” that is the hell on earth that was Nazi rule.  The intent of the play was to encourage people to “embrace honesty and hope,” rather than the cowardice, dishonesty and misanthropy of the three characters.[15]  The play, in this view, implicitly calls for resistance rather than resignation to hellishness.  This includes resistance to “the look” with which the Nazis were trying to demoralize and imprison the French, but also “the look” with which the French were demoralizing and imprisoning themselves.

Praxis makes Perfect: Existence precedes Essence.

Inez: “They’re waiting.”

Garcin: “They’re watching.”

The majority view of No Exit reflects a very cynical view of social relations, more so than even that of Diogenes the original Cynic.  Diogenes at least continued his search for an honest man.  In the majority view of the play, Sartre has given up.  The play portrays the views of three narcissistic sociopaths, who have betrayed everyone around them, and who seemingly have no significant experience of commitment to anyone.  No choice and no exit could be the mantras of their lives.  In the majority view, the three characters represent us in the audience and their predicament represents ours.  In turn, the majority view is that the characters’ cynical views of the world represent Sartre’s views.

But maybe that isn’t the case.  Maybe the play has a less cynical message.  At several points in the play, the characters claim that the higher authorities seem to be looking down on them.  They rationalize this scrutiny as the authorities’ controlling the characters’ every move, after having planned their punishments down to the smallest details.  This scrutiny from on high becomes a further excuse for the three characters to do nothing to change their ways.  “The Devil made me do it” is essentially their excuse.

But this excuse is essentially a cop-out, and another instance of bad faith.  It seems just as likely that the authorities are watching the three of them to see what the three are doing, and to see if they warrant any further punishment.  It is just as likely that the fates of the three are not sealed, and that their present behavior is being judged by higher authorities, which includes us in the audience.  We, too, are watching them, judging them, and waiting to see if they can take steps to change their ways and their situation.  Like maybe walking out the door when it opens.  I have watched the play many times, and I keep hoping that the characters will someday walk out that open door.

As to the Rorschach Test, those who interpret the play in terms of “the look” are, in effect, giving the characters a pass on the characters’ ongoing responsibility for their predicament.  These interpreters are willing to accept the characters’ bad faith rationalizations of their resignation, and their bad faith excuse for continuing to do just what they had always done.  If these interpreters are willing to accept others’ bad faith excuses for inaction, maybe they would also be inclined to rationalize their own unwillingness to take responsibility for their own choices and for joining with others to make a better world?

In this majority view, the play promotes resignation to the fact that the human condition is hell on earth, and in the hereafter.  I don’t buy that view.  I think that view is itself an instance of bad faith thinking, and represents the sort of cynicism that led Diogenes to become a Cynic.  I contend that Huis Clos is a call to arms against bad faith, and that the message of the play is that you are never fixed in who you are or by what you have done.  You can always do something different, because the next opportunity to choose immediately succeeds the last choice.  And the only way to realize your own freedom is through promoting the freedom of others.

June 23, 2017.

[1] Francesca Baretta. “Review ‘No Exit.’” The Oxford Cultural Review. 6/2/16.

[2] Jean Paul Sartre.  Being and Nothingness: An Essay on Phenomenological Ontology. New York: Philosophical Library, 1956.

[3] Jean Paul Sartre.  Being and Nothingness: An Essay on Phenomenological Ontology. New York: Philosophical Library, 1956. pp.252 et seq.

[4] Jean Paul Sartre.  Being and Nothingness: An Essay on Phenomenological Ontology. New York: Philosophical Library, 1956. p.364.

[5] Lawrence Bommer. “Review of No Exit.”  Chicago Reader. 9/6/90.

[6] Francesca Baretta. “Review ‘No Exit.’” The Oxford Cultural Review. 6/2/16.

[7] Leah Frank.  “Theater Review; ‘No Exit,’ Sartre’s Version of Hell.” The New York Times. 10/22/89.

[8] Leah Frank.  “Theater Review; ‘No Exit,’ Sartre’s Version of Hell.” The New York Times. 10/22/89.

[9] Lawrence Bommer. “Review of No Exit.”  Chicago Reader. 9/6/90.

[10] Robert Hurwitt. “’No Exit’ Review: Welcome to Hotel Sartre.” SFGATE. 4/14/11.   Zachary Stewart. “No Exit.” Theatre Mania. 3/9/14.  Mike Fischer. “Theater Review: Self-absorbed pay the price in ‘No Exit.Milwaukee Wisconsin Journal Sentinal. 8/12/16.

[11] Jean-Paul Sartre. Existentialism is a Humanism. New Haven, CN: Yale University Press, 2007. p.46, 48.

[12] Jean Paul Sartre.  Being and Nothingness: An Essay on Phenomenological Ontology. New York: Philosophical Library, 1956. p.66.

[13] Jean-Paul Sartre. Existentialism is a Humanism. New Haven, CN: Yale University Press, 2007. p.47.

[14] Jean-Paul Sartre. Existentialism is a Humanism. New Haven, CN: Yale University Press, 2007. p.35.

[15] David Rooney. “The Other People Are Back: Do They Ever Leave? Sartre’s ‘No Exit’” The New York Times. 3/12/14.

“It’s like trying to tell a stranger ‘bout rock ‘n roll.” The Magic in The Magic Mountain.

“It’s like trying to tell a stranger ‘bout rock ‘n roll.”

The Magic in The Magic Mountain.

Burton Weltman 

“If you believe in magic

Come along with me.”

Do You Believe in Magic?

The Lovin’ Spoonful.


Hans Castorp Faces Life in Death and Death in Life.

What is the magic in Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain?  It is a novel full of talking heads, abstruse debates, and abstract ideas.  There is almost no action in what passes for a story.  The story takes place in a tuberculosis sanatorium full of diseased people, many of whom exhibit disgusting symptoms, and who are dying right and left.  So, what makes readers avidly turn the pages of the book (all 854 of them in the Everyman’s Library edition), and leads many to return repeatedly to the book?[1]  What, in turn, made Hans Castorp, the main character of the novel, come to the hospital for a three-week visit, and then stay for seven years?  What is the magic in the mountain?

The Magic Mountain is a novel of ideas, in which tubercular patients and their caregivers engage in desperate debates about the meaning of life in the face of death.[2]  The unnamed sanitarium in the book is on a mountain top in Davos, Switzerland.  Davos is today the home of an annual gathering of the ultra-rich, super powerful, and internationally famous, who come together for meetings with each other and with star academics to try to figure out what is going on in the world, and what they can do about it.  Davos was in the early twentieth century the home of many sanitariums, its high altitude in the Alps and its weather conditions having been considered optimal for curing, or at least ameliorating, tuberculosis.

Patients in the sanitarium in The Magic Mountain are subject to a rigid regimen of eating large quantities of rich foods some half-dozen times a day, and then lying down for most of the rest of the day bundled up in blankets on reclining chairs on ice cold balconies.  Gorging on food, then digesting and resting are the basic principles of this cure, along with obsessively taking one’s temperature to gauge the state of one’s disease.  Most of the patients in the book succumb to the stultifying routine and the suffocating idleness of this regimen.  “Six months at most after they have come here, these young people – and they are mostly young people who come here – have lost every idea except flirtation and temperature.”[3]  Hans himself quickly settles into the deadening routine, obsessively taking his temperature, and becoming besotted with Madam Clavdia Chauchat, a female patient.

Every day is the same for most of the patients, so that time ceases to be meaningful.  Weeks seem like days, months like weeks, years like months.  They are mesmerized by the routine, and they focus so intensely on themselves that they can see, hear, and think of little outside of themselves.  “Disease makes men more physical,” claims one of the patients, “It leaves them nothing but body.”  The regimen becomes a fetish, a magical ritual, that patients think will keep them alive.  But they become like the living dead, for whom life has little meaning beyond physical survival.[4]

The book has been called “a narration about the passage of time” in which the structure of the novel mimics the experience of the patients.  The first couple of years that Hans is at the sanitarium occupy about three-quarters of the book, the next five years the rest.  That is, the period of time when things are new to Hans, and he is getting used to not getting used to being at the sanitarium, as he likes to say, seems to pass slowly.  But once he is acclimated, and falls into the routine of the place, time seems to fly by in a fog.[5]

This becalming effect is seemingly one the reasons that some readers of the book become repeated re-readers.  They get caught up in the comforting effects of the patients’ routine, and they find irresistible the book’s descriptions of lavish meals and snug rest periods.  The book has, in this regard, been hailed as “a work of sick-lit par excellence,” because it gives readers a chance to luxuriate in their own woes as they meander through the long novel.[6]

But the stasis established for patients by the sanitarium’s regimen is not stable.  Most of them are very sick, and denial of this fact cannot last.  Devastating turns for the worse, horrifying surgical procedures, and pathetic deaths repeatedly punctuate the routine of the sanitarium, and puncture the hermetic chambers of mind and body in which patients try to survive.  Despite the sanitarium’s best efforts to keep these events secret – dying patients are quarantined from the observation of other patients, and corpses are removed at night through underground passages — these events disrupt life at the sanitarium, and disrupt our vicarious enjoyment of the routine.  The book may be a work of “sick-lit,” but it’s comforting effects can be short-lived for readers.

Melodrama, Tragedy, and Comedy on the Magic Mountain.

If The Magic Mountain is one part sick-lit, it is two parts egghead-lit.  Not everyone at the sanitarium succumbs to the stupefying effects of the routine, or develops a self-centered focus of his or her illness.  There are patients and members of the staff at the sanitarium who struggle to find meaning outside of themselves, and who engage in intense theoretical debates with each other.  These characters seek to escape the insularity of illness, and the dullness of life at the sanitarium, through intellectual activities.  And the alternation of tedium and terror at the sanitarium, being surrounded by life and death in grievous struggle, seems to stimulate the creativity of these people.  They principally include the humanist scholar Settembrini, the sanitarium’s head physician Dr. Behrens, the sanitarium’s psychoanalyst Dr. Krokowski, the Jesuit scholar Naphta, and the colonial plantation owner Peeperkorn.

The ideas propounded by these characters constitute a compendium of the main theories of society and psychology that were extant in the early twentieth century.  Most of these theories, or variations of them, are still important in the present day.  The debates amongst these men are another reason why readers repeatedly return to The Magic Mountain, where “the characters who inhabit [the book] are such delightful company.”[7]  The book is intellectually stimulating even as it is emotionally comforting.  But the arguments of the debaters all ultimately fail, and the debates reach no viable conclusions.

Each of the debaters is a self-styled humanitarian who seeks the best for all of humankind, and seeks to convert others to his way of thinking toward that end.  But in the single-mindedness of their beliefs, and their insistent proselytizing, they invariably get caught up and carried away with their own ideas.  In fiercely debating with each other, each ends up carrying his arguments and actions to extreme conclusions, where they illogically turn around and contradict themselves.  In the end, each of these characters is dramatically defeated, and thrown back on his isolated self.

Drama has often been categorized into three types: melodrama, comedy, and tragedy.  Melodrama is generally characterized by a life-and-death struggle between good and evil, and good guys against bad guys.  A melodramatic resolution comes with the triumph of one side over the other, sometimes for good, other times for ill.  Comedy is generally characterized by a conflict between fools and wise people, with the laughter coming at the expense of the fools, and the resolution coming with the triumph of wisdom over foolishness.  Tragedy is generally characterized by a conflict within an otherwise good person which pushes the person to taken an extreme position, at which point things boomerang on the person and end up taking a turn for the bad.  That is, hubris, pride, or egoism lead the person to go too far, at which point the person’s best intended actions to turn back on themselves, contradicting the person’s original intentions, and snatching ill from the jaws of good.[8]

In The Magic Mountain, each of the main debaters tends to see himself as involved in a melodrama, with himself representing good and his opponents evil.  Each of them, however, is actually engaged in a self-generated tragedy in which he takes his good ideas to extremes where they end up being distorted into their opposites.  For the reader, who can see all of this happening, the book is a comedy in which the main characters foolishly undermine their own ideas, make fools of themselves, and place the reader in the position of wisely recognizing the happy medium the main characters have eschewed.

Hans Castorp is situated in the midst of the debates, with each arguer trying to convert Hans to his position.  Hans, for better and worse, is a cipher.  For better because that gives us readers the opportunity to hear a full exposition of each arguer’s position.  For worse because Hans doesn’t seem to learn anything significant in the course of the book, and ends up essentially unchanged.

Much Ado About Very Little to Do: The Less at Stake, the Greater the Ferocity.

The debates in The Magic Mountain seem to exemplify an old saying about arguments among academics, that the less there is at stake, the more ferocious the debaters.  The debates in the book can be divided into two parts.  In the first part of the book, the main arguers are Settembrini, Behrens, and Krokowski, and their main theme is the physical causes and effects of illness.  In the second part, the main disputants are Settembrini again, along with Naphta, and Peeperkorn.  Their focus is on moral, ethical, and spiritual themes.  Although convincing Hans is a main goal of the debaters, he is generally more interested in fantasizing romantically about Madam Chauchat, whose feline femininity bewitches him, than in considering their arguments.  The magic of her charms is more potent than their ideas.

Settembrini is the sentimental favorite of the book’s narrator, Hans, and us readers.  He has a sweet personality, a gently sardonic sense of humor, and his arguments in favor of democratic liberalism and humanitarian cooperation are designed to find favor with most of the people who are likely to read the book.  An honest reader is forced, however, to conclude that Settembrini rarely gets the better of the debate.  This is unnerving to us and is, I think, one of the reasons people re-read the book.  We hope that his arguments will appear stronger in the next reading.

Dr. Behrens represents modern medicine, and he promotes a philosophy based on the humane precept that we should not blame ourselves, or condemn our bodies, for getting sick.  In the course of the book, however, this precept evolves into the principle that life is itself a chronic illness.  Behrens claims that it is good to get sick because that provokes the body’s defenses against illness.  We must fight illness with illness, and find illness wherever we can.[9]  He has, thereby, taken a humane idea and stretched it to the turning point where it contradicts itself.

When Hans first arrives at the sanatorium, Settembrini warns Hans that he should leave immediately and, in any case, should have nothing to do with Behrens.  Settembrini claims that if Hans talks with Behrens, Hans will end up being convinced by the doctor that he is sick, and will get roped into a long stay as a patient at the sanitarium.  That is exactly what happens.  Hans develops a bit of a fever and a cough, ends up staying seven years, and when he leaves, it is doubtful that he ever was tubercular.  In the course of the book, our view of Behrens changes from benevolent healer to medical crank and bottom-line greedy businessman.

Dr. Krokowski represents modern psychology, and promotes a philosophy based on the humane precept that we should not blame ourselves, or condemn our bodies, for our natural feelings of love and lust.  In the course of the book, however, this precept evolves into the principle that love is the root of all illness, and that sexual repression leads to unease which leads to disease.  According to Krokowski, “Any symptom of illness was a masked form of love in action, and illness was merely transformed love.”[10]  Love is the problem for him, but what is the solution?

Krokowski seems at times to be prescribing free love as the cure for everything that ails us, but obfuscates his suggestions with gobbledy-gook language that ironically leaves his audience titillated but not fully satisfied.  His clearest recommendation is for patients to undertake an intensive, multi-year course of psychoanalytic talking sessions with him.  But Krokowski’s disclosures of the illicit secrets hidden in people’s psyches seems to hurt patients more than help them.  He has, thus, essentially taken a humane opposition to repression, and turned it into an advertisement for his very pricey and not very helpful services.

Settembrini decries Krokowski to Hans as a charlatan, and half-jokingly claims that Krokowski “has one thought in his head, and it is a filthy one.”[11]  Krokowski’s own relations with his female patients are somewhat ambiguous, as are Hans’ relations with women.  When Hans becomes infatuated with Madam Chauchat, and finds her bewitching, her hold on his mind is one of the main things that keeps him at the sanitarium.  When it eventually turns out that she reminds Hans of a boy with whom Hans was infatuated when he was in school, Han is disturbed, but remains enchanted by her.  Listening to Krokowski, however, only seems to upset him, making his views of himself and his sexuality even more confused and confusing.

Both Behrens and Krokowski promote what they claim are the findings of modern science about humans and human behavior, that humans are material creatures controlled by their physical instincts and material needs.  They both assert that humans invariably think and act irrationally.  People just mechanically respond to stimuli without any real forethought, and with rationalizing what they instinctively did as an afterthought.  These assertions are ironic, since they are based on the findings of humans rationally engaged in the rational pursuit of science.  The two doctors are, thereby, both caught in a contradiction in their own thinking that they don’t recognize.

Settembrini is a rationalist humanist.  He wants to rescue humankind from what he sees as the denigration of humanity promoted by the materialistic science advocated by Behrens and Krokowski.  He decries the idea that humans are ensnared in a cycle of physical stimuli and responses, and material causes and effects.  Whereas Behrens claims that “a stimulus is a stimulus, the body doesn’t give a damn about the meaning of a stimulus,” Settembrini wants to restore the spiritual dignity of humans by emphasizing the ability of people to exercise free will, make rational choices, and create meaning in their lives.  When Behrens claims that life is “perhaps only an infectious disease of matter,” Settembrini claims that “illness is a debasement” of life, and that mind can exercise its control over matter.  Settembrini proclaims the rule of mind over matter, not matter over mind as the science of Behrens and Krokowski would have it.[12]

But Settembrini takes this humane idea to its inhumane logical conclusion.  He ends up blaming our illnesses on ourselves, and claiming that people should be able to overcome illness through will power.  It is a moral weakness in people, he claims, to succumb to illness.  Settembrini has thereby taken a humane rationalism and turned it into a mean-spirited guilt trip.

One of the tragedies in the book is that Hans is able to comprehend the debaters’ criticisms of each other, and recognize the weaknesses in their ideas, but is generally unable to appreciate the strengths in their respective positions.  He goes through a vicious cycle of continually being convinced by the person who last speaks to him, and revolving from one position to the next, until he pretty much gives up on them all, and looks upon the debaters as merely showmen.

The second round of debate in the book, between Settembrini, Naphta, and Peeperkorn, focuses on moral and ethical issues, the nature of the self and human relations.  In this debate, Settembrini represents the Enlightenment, Naphta the European Middle Ages, and Peeperkorn the modern era.  Each of them claims to promote human dignity and social cooperation, but each has a very different idea of these things.

Settembrini is a humanist scholar who advocates progressive ideas of capitalist democracy and individual freedom.  He extolls cooperation among humans through a rational and equitable division of labor.  He promotes a cult of work.  Work is the means of individual fulfillment and social development.  Settembrini believes in human progress, and defines progress as an increasingly productive relationship among humans, and between humans and their environment.  He has as an optimistic view of human nature.   He believes that if only people would control their emotions, and avoid the lures of demagogues that appeal to the dark side of human nature, all would be well in the world.  Settembrini envisions progress as the eventual triumph of reason, and the attendant attainment of perpetual peace on earth and goodwill among humankind.[13]

Naphta is a Jesuit scholar who excoriates the Enlightenment, rejects popular democracy, and denigrates human reason, all in the name of what he calls freedom and equality.   Naphta claims to be a benevolent humanitarian, who sympathizes with the poor and ignorant majority of people in the world.  He contends that the hierarchical structure of the Catholic Church is a true democracy because it puts everyone in his and her proper place.  His idea of a good society is based on an ideal monastery, in which all are equal, albeit the heads of the monastery are more equal, and in which all are free to do what they are required to do.[14]

Naphta’s sympathy with humans is colored by a darkly pessimistic view of human nature.  People must be coerced into being good, he claims.  During the Middle Ages, they were good out of fear of God, and those who weren’t good were scourged.  With the declining influence of God in modern society, people must be coerced by government.  “What our age needs,” he proclaims, “what it demands, what it will create for itself, is terror.”  Naptha believes that a universal regimen of corporal and capital punishment is what is needed to set things right.[15]

Naphta predicts that wars among nations and within nations will inevitably bring about the dissolution of modern society and the decline of modern civilization.  The Enlightenment is doomed to implode.  Violence, starvation, and immorality will be rampant.  These disasters will, in turn, be the stimulus for a revolution in which a totalitarian monastic dictatorship will come to rule the world.  Then there will be peace on earth and goodness among humankind.

Naphta is a brilliant disputant.  He invariably reduces Settembrini to rage and almost to tears.  His redefinition of freedom as doing what one is told, equality as universal servitude, and peace as totalitarian suppression were intolerable to Settembrini.  Naphta is, however, able to push Settembrini into defending war in the name of peace, and thereby exposing a fatal contradiction in Settembrini’s position.  But Settembrini is also able to harass Naphta into bloodthirsty proclamations that contradict his humanitarian claims.  Settembrini also forces Naphta into acknowledging that Naphta’s God has made a mess of the world, and into implications that He is either cruel or incompetent.

The dispute between Settembrini and Naphta lasts for years.  It begins as an attempt by each to convert Hans to his position, seeming to see Hans as the everyman who they must be able to convince to save the world.  Although Hans is bewitched and besotted by Madam Chauchat, their disputing over Hans about abstruse philosophical issues becomes an addiction with Settembrini and Naphta.  Each seems to feel that his personal salvation and the salvation of the world depends on his winning the argument.  Hans eventually becomes inured to the sound and fury of arguments that he can barely understand and that, to him, signify very little.  “And on and on it went,” he comes to complain, “we knew the game.”[16]

On it goes until eventually they so grievously insult each other that Naptha insists on fighting a duel with pistols against Settembrini.  Although Settembrini abhors dueling as a vestige of barbarism, he agrees to the duel to avoid being considered a coward who won’t stand up for his principles.  At the duel, Settembrini fires first and shoots into the air, refusing as a matter of principle to aim at Naptha.  Naptha furiously shouts that Settembrini is a coward, and then shoots himself dead in the head.  This melodramatic conclusion of their debates seems to symbolize the sterility of their arguments.[17]

The appearance in the book of Herr Peeperkorn further highlights this futility.  Madam Chauchat has at one point left the sanatorium, much to Hans’ consternation.  When she returns – as most patients who leave the sanitarium seem eventually to do – she is living with Peeperkorn.  Hans is initially distraught, as he was hoping she might return to be with him.  He cannot understand what she sees in Peeperkorn.  Eventually, however, he comes to see what it is, and agrees with her preference for Peeperkorn over himself.  This acknowledgement by Hans of Peeperkorn’s superiority highlights how little the teachings of Settembrini and Naphta have taken root in Hans.

If Hans is an intellectual cipher, Peeperkorn is an intellectual nullity.  He is “a personality,” a charismatic character whom the narrator describes as not an “instigator of intellectual and pedagogic confusion,” but a source of “great confusion” of a moral kind.  He has personal charms that enable him to enthrall all but the most resistant intellectuals.  His magic does not work on Behrens and Settembrini, but it captivates Hans and almost all the other patients.  When Peeperkorn speaks, he first launches into “a series of linguistic gestures that riveted his listeners’ interest,” and then he delivers “one of his robustly prepared, but incomprehensible phrases.”  That is, the guy spoke gibberish, but captivated his audience.[18]

Peeperkorn makes a mockery of all the rationalizing and speechifying of Behrens, Krokowski, Naphta, and Settembrini.  His popularity seems pathetically but poignantly to point up the desire of the patients for something other than mere somnolence, but it also points to their inability to distinguish substance from mere showmanship.  Peeperkorn is able to rouse the patients to a frantic liveliness, mainly to party hearty, but it only leaves them with hangovers in the morning.  Peeperkorn’s philosophy, to the extent he is able to articulate anything, seems to be to eat, drink and be merry, and refuse to comply with the rest cure part of the sanitarium’s regimen.  The result is to make him and the other patients sicker than before.  He does not stimulate the patients to the sort of life that might compensate for the sickness and death all around them.

Peeperkorn is a colonial plantation owner who is used to having people obey him.  He seems to have a need to control others.  This leads him to host all-night feasts and gaming parties, as a means of seducing the other patients.  It also seems to lead him to commit suicide when he finds out that Hans and Madam Chauchat may have had a one-night sexual affair on Walpurgisnacht, or witches’ night, during her previous stay at the sanitarium.  And he suspects that they may still have romantic interests in each other.  Peeperkorn seemingly cannot stand the idea that he may have been preceded, and may be superseded, by someone as innocuous as Hans.  So, he kills himself out of pique and pride.[19]

Peeperkorn is an idiot, but he is not merely a comic fool in the story.  He represents the dangers of a demagogue, someone who may appear to intellectuals such as Settembrini and the readers of The Magic Mountain as a buffoon, but who appeals to the fears of desperate people and has a magical influence over them.  He is not evil, but he hints at the possibilities of evil.  Mann later explored this theme in prescient depth in the story of “Mario and the Magician,” a novella written in 1929 about an evil magician who can mesmerize the masses.  Mann’s fiction became a horrible fact of life in Adolf Hitler.  It is currently a disturbing fact of life in Donald Trump.

Intimations of Immortality on the Mountain: Keeping Hope Alive.

The Magic Mountain is not an optimistic book.  When it was published in 1924, Naphta seemed to be the better prophet.  There had arisen out of the horrors and destruction of World War I a series of authoritarian and potentially totalitarian regimes in Communist Russia, Fascist Italy, and Eastern Europe, all of them ostensibly established on behalf of the poor and downtrodden.  The threat posed by demagogues with Peeperkorn’s powers of persuasion was evident in the success of Mussolini in Italy and in the rise of Hitler in Germany, whose participation in the Beer Hall Putsch in 1924 made him a hero among German fascists.  The humanistic rationalism and humanitarianism of Settembrini was in retreat almost everywhere.  Hope seemed hopeless in 1924.  When the book ends, Hans is marching over a World War I battlefield, stepping on and over dead bodies.  The implication is that he probably won’t survive.  But maybe he will.

While a big part of the magic that draws people back to the book is the coziness of the sanitarium’s routine of eating and resting, and the stimulation of the debates among some of the sanitarium’s residents, I think another big part is the ambiguity of the book’s endings.  We are left with the thought that maybe things could have, and still might, end up differently.  Settembrini has lost the arguments, but maybe he hasn’t.  Maybe a second or third reading of the book will change the outcome.  Likewise, Hans may die a senseless death, but maybe he won’t.

In just about the middle of the story, Hans has an epiphany when he is caught in a blinding snow storm while out hiking by himself.  He is completely lost in the blizzard, and is almost ready to give himself up to death.  But even as he is physically defeated, he fights on mentally, and is caught up by words that come to him seemingly out of nowhere, that “because of charity and love, man should never allow death to rule one’s thoughts.” The italics are in the original, and this is the only italicized sentence in the book, thereby seeming to attest its importance.[20]  The power of these words uplifts Hans, even as the power of the storm subsides, and he is able to make it back to the sanitarium.  Much to the regret of the narrator and the reader, Hans immediately forgets having had this thought, and gets caught up again in the sanitarium’s death-centered regimen.

The story later ends with what is essentially an epitaph for Hans, that his adventures were “a dream of love.”  The narrator leaves us with the hope that “out of the worldwide festival of death, this ugly rutting fever that inflames the rainy evening sky all round – will love someday rise up out of this, too?”[21]  We readers of The Magic Mountain wish that Hans would have held onto his epiphany of love, and made a life of it.  Maybe next time we read the book, he will.

BW 4/20/17

[1] W.B. Gooderham.  “Winter Reads: The Magic Mountain by Thomas Mann.”  the guardian.  12/14/11.

[2] Tim O’Neil. “The Magic Mountain by Thomas Mann.” popmatters.  8/5/2005.

[3] Thomas Mann. The Magic Mountain. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1995. p.

[4] Thomas Mann. The Magic Mountain. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1995. p.

[5] Kara Schubenz. “The Magic Mountain.” Modernism Laboratory at Yale University.  1/13/2010.

[6]  W.B. Gooderham.  “Winter Reads: The Magic Mountain by Thomas Mann.”  the guardian.  12/14/2011.

[7] Fergis Berdewich. “Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain: The Vitality of Big Ideas.” The American Scholar. 11/16/2015.

[8] Aristotle. Aristotle’s Poetics. New York: Hill & Wang, 1961, pp.59, 61, 84-86.  Paul Goodman. The Structure of Literature. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1954, pp.35, 82-100, 127-149, 172.

[9] Thomas Mann. The Magic Mountain. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1995. p.216.

[10] Thomas Mann. The Magic Mountain. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1995. p.151.

[11]  Thomas Mann. The Magic Mountain. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1995. p.73.

[12] Thomas Mann. The Magic Mountain. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1995. p.116.

[13]  Thomas Mann. The Magic Mountain. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1995. p.

[14] Thomas Mann. The Magic Mountain. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1995. p.699.

[15] Thomas Mann. The Magic Mountain. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1995. p.

[16] Thomas Mann. The Magic Mountain. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1995. p.701.

[17] Thomas Mann. The Magic Mountain. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1995. p.841.

[18] Thomas Mann. The Magic Mountain. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1995. pp.650, 652, 701.

[19] Thomas Mann. The Magic Mountain. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1995. p.741.

[20] Thomas Mann. The Magic Mountain. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1995. p.

[21]  Thomas Mann. The Magic Mountain. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1995. p.854.

So what if Horton heard a Who? The Ethics of Hobbes, Hutcheson and Dr. Seuss in the Age of Trump.

So what if Horton heard a Who?

The Ethics of Hobbes, Hutcheson and Dr. Seuss in the Age of Trump.

Burton Weltman

Horton’s World: A person is a person, no matter how small.

In Dr. Seuss’ story Horton Hears a Who!, Horton is an elephant who lives in a jungle.  Since elephants have big ears, Horton is able to hear a tiny voice emanating from a tiny person on a speck of dust that is a tiny world.  The tiny person, who says he is a Who, is calling for help because the tiny world of the Whos has come unmoored and is blowing in the wind toward a pond in which the Whos will all drown.  To save the Whos, Horton grabs the speck of dust and places it on a flower.  He then promises the Whos that he will plant the flower in a safe place to secure their long-term safety.

But Horton is overheard by a group of his friends, a diverse bunch of animals, none of whom has ears as big as an elephant’s and none of whom can hear the Whos.  To them, Horton is seemingly talking to a flower, and they think he is delusional.  To save Horton from his delusions, they overpower him, seize the flower, and declare their intention to destroy it.  Horton resists and prevails upon the Whos to shout in unison until, finally, when the last little Who child adds his small voice to the chorus, Horton’s colleagues can hear the Whos clamoring for help.  At this point, they immediately adopt Horton’s mantra that “A person is a person, no matter how small,” and the book ends with them pledging to help him protect the Whos’ world.

But why?  Why should Horton’s jungle mates care about protecting a bunch of insignificant creatures on a minuscule piece of dust?  The answer to that question is the key to the moral and the message of this story, and most of Dr. Seuss’s other stories as well.  The story is not merely about Horton’s heroics, it is even more about the willingness of his colleagues to change their minds when confronted with convincing evidence, and their ability to demonstrate empathy toward other creatures no matter how different and how insignificant.

The world of Dr. Seuss is one in which people care for each other, differences among people can be reconciled, and one can reasonably expect people to be reasonable.  This, I contend, is one of the main reasons Dr. Seuss’s stories remain enormously popular among parents and children some sixty to eighty years after their publication.  And, I contend as well, the continuing popularity of Dr. Seuss’s books is a sign of hope for us in the coming Age of Trump.

Hobbes, Hutcheson, and Horton: All against all, or all for one and one for all.

The moral and message of a story are contained not merely in the words and actions of the main characters, but in those of the surrounding characters and in the overall ambience of the story.[1]  Does a story portray the struggles of heroically good individuals against a corrupt society and a generally malignant populace?  Or does it portray the efforts of good people to convince other basically good people to do the right thing?  The messages of these two types of stories are very different as to what children will face in the world and how they should behave.  The former message is the gist of the philosophy of Thomas Hobbes, a mid-seventeenth century English thinker.  The latter is the gist of the philosophy of Francis Hutcheson, an early eighteenth century Scottish thinker.

Anglo-American ethical thinking has been dominated by two main streams of thought since the eighteenth century, streams which are represented by Hobbes and Hutcheson.  Hobbes claimed that humans are essentially selfish, and that society is a zero-sum game in which one person’s gain is another person’s loss.  The suffering of others is nothing compared to the convenience to ourselves, Hobbes contended.  Life is a war of all against all.  If Hobbes were writing the story of Horton and the Whos, the story would likely end with Horton’s colleagues destroying the flower, since protecting the Whos was too much trouble, and who cares about Whos anyways.

Hobbes’s ethical position has been advanced over the centuries by a long train of social thinkers.  The position was represented in the eighteenth century by Bernard Mandeville’s advocacy of cutthroat laissez-faire capitalism because “Private vice makes for public good.”  That is, cheating, bullying, lying, greed, self-indulgence, and meanness are what make the world go around.  In the nineteenth century, this philosophy was represented by the so-called Social Darwinism of William Graham Sumner.  The rich are rich, Sumner claimed, because they are better people.  The poor deserve their poverty because they are worse.

In the twentieth century, Hobbes’s war of all against all was rationalized in the trickle-down theories of David Stockman.  It is better for everyone, he claimed, if the rich get richer because some of their wealth will trickle down to the poor.  The stock in trade of plutocrats in all ages, Hobbes’s thinking is currently the mantra of Donald Trump, for whom little people and refugees like the Whos are merely losers to be set aside while winners like him get on with life.

Hutcheson represented a contrary position.  He contended that humans are essentially social, and that society should be properly understood and operated on a mutual aid basis in which the gain of each is the gain of all.  He claimed that people are essentially empathetic, and that we inevitably share in the suffering and happiness of others.  Denying our responsibility for others in pursuit of selfish individualism is a self-defeating proposition, which only leaves one insecure and a loser, no matter how much one ostensibly wins.  Triumph over others is defeat for oneself.

In the eighteenth century, Hutcheson’s position was represented by Thomas Jefferson in The Declaration of Independence.  Jefferson took the phrase “pursuit of happiness” directly from Hutcheson, for whom it meant seeking one’s own happiness through helping others.  Pace Donald Trump and his Tea Party haters, the country was actually founded in empathy.

In the nineteenth century, Hutcheson’s theory was reflected in the cooperative ideas of Jane Addams, whose Hull House was a model of sharing and caring.  In the twentieth century, it was represented in Franklin Roosevelt’s declaration of the Four Freedoms to which all people are entitled – freedom of speech and expression, freedom of religion, freedom from want, and freedom from fear.  Embodied in the phrase one for all and all for one, the theory has been the stock in trade of liberals in all ages.  It has been the gist of Barack Obama’s slogan “Yes, we can,” with the emphasis on the “we,” and is currently the mantra of Bernie Sanders.  And it is the moral represented by Horton and his friends.[2]

Dr. Seuss’s World: Doing the Right Thing.

Dr. Seuss’s stories are above all else about our responsibility for each other and, especially, the responsibility of those with power to assist those without.  Sharing and caring are the keys.  The tension in his stories generally comes from disagreements about what is the responsible thing to do.  In Horton Hears a Who, it is the disagreement between Horton, who insists that he must protect the Whos, and Horton’s colleagues, who insist that they must help free Horton from his delusions.  But once Horton’s friends realize that Horton is not delusional, they immediately accept their responsibility as more powerful creatures to help the less powerful Whos.

One of the important points in the book is that no one, no matter how big and powerful, can succeed on his/her own.   Horton the elephant is by far the biggest animal in the story, but even he is liable to be overpowered by the combined efforts of the other smaller jungle animals.  Success, Dr. Seuss is saying, is social.  In turn, no one is too small and weak to make a difference.  It was the squeak of the last and smallest Who that finally enabled Horton’s friends to hear the Whos, and to realize the harm they were about to do. Failure, Dr. Seuss warns, can be individual.  So, everyone must help.  This message permeates all of Dr. Seuss’s books.

In Horton Hatches the Egg, Horton once again accepts a responsibility to take care of someone at risk, in this case a bird’s egg that has been abandoned by its mother.  Horton sits for what seems like months on the egg, through storm and stress, consoling himself with the mantra that “An elephant’s faithful – one hundred per cent.”  When the egg finally hatches, the infant is half bird and half elephant, a biological impossibility, but an ethical justice.  Most important, no one in the story rejects the baby elephant-bird as deformed or different.  The story is not just about Horton’s faithfulness, and the duty of those with power to help those without, but also about the willingness of others to accept diversity.

In Green Eggs and Ham, the conventional tables are turned, and an adult is being harassed by a child to try something new and different, something the adult thinks he won’t like.  It is normally the case that children are adjured by parents, teachers and other adults to try new things, things the kids think they won’t like.  In the end, the adult tries the green eggs and ham, and finds that he likes them.  The key to the story is that the adult is willing to admit he was wrong.  He does not merely try the green eggs and ham to get the kid off his back, and then save face by insisting that he still does not like them.  He is willing to swallow his pride, along with the green eggs and ham.  This is another instance of those with power accepting responsibility to support others.

Most of Dr. Seuss’ other stories – from The Sneetches to Yertle the Turtle to The Lorax to How the Grinch Stole Christmas and The Butter Battle Book – turn in the end on the idea that most people will do the right thing, the socially responsible and cooperative thing, if and when they realize what needs to be done.  Dr. Seuss is not a Pollyanna.  There are bad people in his books, and bad things happen to good people in his stories.  But there is always the possibility of reconciliation and consensus as an outcome.

Dr. Seuss treats what used to be called “the common man” and “the people” with respect.  People may be wrong, wrong-headed and ignorant, but they are not idiots.  He would seemingly support Lincoln’s claim that you can fool all of the people some of the time, and some of the people all of the time, but you cannot fool all of the people all of the time.  Dr. Seuss’s stories illustrate Lincoln’s adage, with the underlying assumption that most people can be reasoned with, and will change their minds and ways when they are given adequate evidence and appropriate arguments.

In this respect, Dr. Seuss’s stories stand in sharp contrast to children’s stories in which characters inevitably and irreconcilably fight one another, and in which the world is chronically ominous, dangerous and downright scary.  The stories of the three little pigs and the big bad wolf, Tweety Bird and Sylvester the Cat, and the Road Runner and Wiley Coyote are prime examples of this.  In these stories, large predator animals seek to kill small prey animals.  Given their biological differences and genetic imperatives, there is no basis for reconciliation or consensus between the enemies.  The large animals are meat eaters, and the small animals are their meat.

In these stories, the small animals are made to look and sound like little children.  Since small children are intended to identify with the small creatures, these stories portray a scary world for children.  And even though there is some consolation in that the predators in the stories never get their prey, the message to children is that the world is a dangerous place full of big creatures trying to kill little creatures like themselves.  In a similar way, stories such as “Sleeping Beauty” and “Snow White,” in which an innocent young heroine is threatened by an evil adult witch, convey to children the message that evil is real, that evil is all around us, and that you can never tell who is hiding their evil intentions behind a benign smile.

These stories represent the world that Donald Trump inhabits, a realm of false smiles and perpetual fighting for domination, in which doing dirty unto others before they can do unto you is the law of the land.  But Trump’s world is even scarier than these storybook worlds, because in his world the three little pigs, Tweety Bird, and the Road Runner would be considered weaklings and losers, and they would get eaten.  Trump’s is a world in which sharing and caring, doing the responsible and empathetic thing, have no place.

Trump’s America.  Or is it?

I think that those of us who are appalled at the election of Donald Trump as President of the United States need to distinguish between three things to be able go forward with some degree of optimism.  We need to distinguish between Trump the person, Trump the President, and Trump the ostensible representative of the American people.

Trump the person is abominable, and he is a classic loser despite his success.  The man is without couth or class and, seemingly, without conscience.   He is a perpetual adolescent, trying to assert himself amongst people whom he secretly seemingly sees as superior to himself.  So, he denigrates them, but he is really denigrating himself in the process.  He is a bully who relies on others to fight his battles, a billionaire who took his father’s money and did very little with it, a businessman whose only successful business has been in selling his name to a credulous portion of the public.  His racism, misogyny, ethnocentrism, and selfish self-centeredness represent most of the worst elements in American society.  As I write this essay, he is a seventy-year old man about to become the most powerful person in the world, but he is still acting out in tweets and in rants the insecurity of a pimply adolescent.

As awful as Trump is as a person, it is not clear that he will be able to translate all that awfulness into his presidency.  As President, he will need to cope with his own ignorance, incompetence and short attention span.  He will also need to deal with a sharply divided Republican Party, most of whose leaders dislike him, and with a Congress, most of whose members face election in less than two years.   He will also face a public that does not like him, and that gave his opponent a significant majority of the popular vote in the election.  So, it is not clear how much of his awfulness can be translated into policy.

Finally, it is quite clear that Trump does not represent the values and political preferences of a majority of the American people.  He not only lost the popular vote, but it seems that most of his votes came from people who were opposed to Clinton, not in favor of him.  There is a plethora of reasons why he won the election or, rather, why Hillary Clinton lost the election, and his candidacy and election have unleashed some of the worst elements and tendencies in our society.  But it is not the case that the populace has in recent years turned to the far right.  And the continued popularity of Dr. Seuss is one small proof.

Dr. Seuss’s characters represent almost all that is best about America, and not merely his main characters, the heroes of the stories, but the supporting cast as well.  That is the key to the morals and ethics of his stories.  Most of us see ourselves not as heroes, but as members of the supporting cast in society.  Dr. Seuss portrays his supporting cast of characters as basically good people, who are empathetic and responsible.  That is the role in which he casts people like most of us and our children in his books.  He tells us and our kids that good in the world comes not merely from powerful heroic individuals such as Horton, but from the support of ordinary people like us who end up supporting Horton.  That parents and children continue to find comfort, amusement and instruction in Dr. Seuss’s stories is a source of hope that the ethics of Horton and Hutcheson will prevail in the long run, and that we will emerge as a decent society from the reign of Donald Trump.

[1] For a discussion of storytelling and the moral messages of different narrative forms, I have posted an essay on this blog site entitled “What to do about the Big Bad Wolf: Narrative Choices and the Moral of a Story.”

[2] For a discussion of the devolution of conservatism and the evolution of liberalism in America, I have posted an essay entitled “Do unto others before they do unto you: The Devolution of Conservatism from Burke to Trump and the Evolution of Pragmatic Liberalism from Madison to Obama” on this blog site.


The Will to Believe and The Wizard of Oz: Pragmatism along the Yellow Brick Road.

The Will to Believe and The Wizard of Oz:

Pragmatism along the Yellow Brick Road.

 Burton Weltman

“Do you believe in the magic in a young girl’s heart?…

If you believe in magic, come along with me.”

The Lovin’ Spoonful.

The Conventional Misreading of the Wizard of Oz: A Paean to Individualism.

“Oz never gave nothing to the Tin Man

That he didn’t, didn’t already have before.


The Wizard of Oz has had a magical history.  The original version of the Wizard’s story, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (1900), was a best-seller in its time, and L.Frank Baum, its author, subsequently wrote twelve other popular Oz books.  Baum also wrote a successful Broadway musical based on the story, and there have been several plays and movies based on it.  The movie The Wizard of Oz (1939) won two Academy Awards and continues to the present day to be the most watched movie of all time.  A second Broadway musical of the story, The Wiz (1978), was a hit, and it won a Tony Award as best musical of the year.  It was also made into a successful movie.  Many of the characters in the story, especially the Scarecrow, the Tin Man, the Cowardly Lion, and the Wizard, have continued over the years to appear in dozens of spinoff tales.[1]  What is it about the story of the Wizard of Oz that makes for its continuing popularity?

The conventional explanation for the story’s popularity is that it is a celebration of individualism, a characteristic upon which Americans ostensibly pride themselves.  “Is there any more prominent message of American individualism than this one?  We never get tired of hearing that we control our own outcomes.”[2]  In this view, the story is about ignoring what others think of you, and finding yourself in yourself.  So, for example, the Scarecrow was already smart before he met Dorothy, let alone got an ersatz brain from the Wizard.  He was just hanging on a pole, waiting for a chance to show off his intelligence.  His innate intelligence is demonstrated by the solutions he invented to the problems he and his comrades encountered en route to Emerald City.  The Scarecrow did not need any help to be smart.  He was already smart by himself.[3]

Likewise, the Tin Man was already innately compassionate.  He consistently demonstrated compassion from the start, even walking carefully so as not to step on ants.  The Lion was, in turn, already brave.  He repeatedly responded courageously to dangerous situations that the comrades faced on their way to Emerald City, and scared off threatening attackers.[4]  Dorothy’s colleagues were all already what they wanted to be before the story began, they just didn’t know it.  Once they were set in motion upon meeting up with Dorothy, however, they all realized their true natures as they responded to the crises they faced in the course of their adventures.

In this conventional view, the Wizard was merely a faker who, as the rock group America proclaims in the “Tin Man” song, contributed nothing to the wellbeing of the Scarecrow, the Tin Man, and the Lion.  They already had in themselves what they needed, without any help from the Wizard or anyone else.  In this view, the Wizard was useless.  He was such a humbug that he could not even control his balloon so as to take Dorothy home to Kansas.  Finally, in this view, Emerald City, over which the Wizard ruled, was merely an insignificant stage setting for the adventures of Dorothy and her companions.  It was not an important part of the story.

This conventional view places the story within the ideologically archconservative framework that was predominant in this country during the late nineteenth century, and that has been resurrected by rightwing ideologists in the late twentieth and early twenty-first century.  As promoted then by such prominent figures as the sociologist William Graham Sumner and the Supreme Court Justice Stephen Field, this ideology idealized laissez-faire capitalism and the supposedly self-made individuals, the Great Men, who ostensibly made possible everything worthwhile.[5]  In the conventional view of The Wizard of Oz, the United States was then, and is now, a land of self-made individualists, and the story promotes an ideology of individualism.  In this view, the success of the story, then and now, is based on its support for that ideology.  I don’t agree.[6]

Lost at See: Dorothy faces an Existential Crisis.

 “Existence precedes Essence.”

Jean Paul Sartre.

The Wonderful Wizard of Oz opens with a commonly used narrative device that is designed to inform readers that strange things are going to be forthcoming.  The device is to situate a character alone in an unknown and potentially hostile environment, often as the result of an accident such as a shipwreck at sea, and then see how the character makes out.  Examples of this device include Ulysses shipwrecked and stranded among the Phaeacians in the Odyssey; Viola in Twelfth Night shipwrecked and alone in Illyria; Robinson Crusoe shipwrecked on a deserted island in Robinson Crusoe; and, Oliver Twist orphaned and adrift in London in Oliver Twist.

All of these characters were wrenched out of the contexts in which they had lived, and were then faced with questions of how to see themselves and survive in their new environments.  They ask themselves: Where am I?  What am I doing here?  Who am I in this place?  What do I do now?  They are put into a predicament that is analogous to what is often called the existential situation of humankind.  We are all born into times and places not of our choosing, asking ourselves who we are and what we are doing here, and faced with the need to make something of ourselves and make our ways in the face of perplexity and adversity.

This is the situation of the main characters in The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, not only Dorothy, but also the Scarecrow, the Tin Man, the Cowardly Lion, and the Wizard.[7]  All of them have been displaced physically and psychologically, and have found themselves, through no fault of their own, stranded and alone in Oz.  Dorothy was the victim of a tornado.  The Scarecrow was stuck on a pole in a field by a farmer.  The Tin Man had rusted in an unexpected rain storm.  The Lion was chased out of the forest by the other animals.  And the Wizard was the victim of a wayward balloon in a storm.  The book is the story of five people, each facing an existential crisis, and struggling with the help of others to make a way in the world.  Each successfully makes it because of their belief in each other, and their support of each other.  That, I contend, is the moral of the story.  Rather than a conservative paean to individualism, and an admonition to believe in merely oneself, the story is a progressive testament to cooperation and the will to believe in each other.

Seeing the Wizard through Progressive Eyes: An Emerald City Manager.

 “If ever, oh ever a Wiz there was,

The Wizard of Oz is one becoz,…

Of the wonderful things he does.”

Lyrics by Yip Harburg.

Sung by Judy Garland & Ray Bolger.

In the progressive view of the story that I am suggesting, the Wizard was not intended by Baum to be dismissed as a marginal character or a mere faker.  The Wizard is a central and sympathetic figure in the story, even a hero of sorts.  And I think audiences feel this.  The book, after all, is named The Wonderful Wizard of Oz.  It is named after the Wizard, as are the movie and musical versions of the story.  It is not named after Dorothy or any of the other characters in the story, as are some of Baum’s later Oz books.  The Wizard is also merely called the Wizard.  He is given no other name, and this seems to attest to his special status in the story.  He is, in turn, called the Wonderful Wizard of Oz, not the Charlatan Wizard of Oz.

Significantly, when it becomes clear that the Wizard cannot perform the magic that Dorothy and her comrades expect, and Dorothy tells him “I think you are a very bad man,” he replies “Oh, no my dear; I’m really a very good man; but I’m a very bad Wizard.”  When the Scarecrow, in turn, accusatorily says “You’re a humbug,” the Wizard calmly replies “Exactly so,” and admits, with seemingly some relief, that “I’m just a common man.”[8]  That is a telling statement from the Wizard.  The phrase “common man” resonated deeply and positively with Americans during the twentieth century, most of whom thought of themselves as common people.  I think that audiences over the years have identified and sympathized with the Wizard, even if he was a humbug.  We are all, after all, humbugs in some ways and to some extent.

The Wizard justifies his pretending to be a wizard by pointing to what he has done in building and maintaining Emerald City, the city that he founded and administers.  The book was written at a time when progressives were starting to promote city managers as a supplement to the politics of governing cities.  City managers would provide expert administration as an alternative to the corruption of the political machines and the dominance of rich businessmen in city governance.  The Wizard claims that Emerald City abounds with “every good thing that is needed to make one happy,” and he contends that “I have been good to the people and they like me.”  I think that readers of the book and viewers of the movies agree with him, and feel that Emerald City is a wonderful, if somewhat weird, place.  I think that they also naturally empathize with the Wizard’s position, and feel that he, in fact, did wonderful things for Emerald City.

It is also the case that, contrary to the “Tin Man” song, the Wizard did give something to the Scarecrow, the Tin Man and the Lion.  The trinkets he gave them as surrogates for a brain, a heart, and courage were a confirmation to them of their most cherished qualities.  And they each felt much better for the confirmation.  They did not disparage the gewgaws or reject the Wizard for giving them mere trinkets.  The trinkets were proof that others believed in them, so that they could believe in themselves.  Baum seemed to be saying with this reaction that we are not self-made individualists.  We are social beings who need support from others, even in the form of symbolic placebos of no inherent value in themselves.

The Wizard was a faker but he was also a man of good faith.  When he asks Dorothy why he should help her, she replies “Because you are strong and I am weak.”  So, like Dr. Seuss’ elephant Horton, who says “I’ve got to protect them. I’m bigger than they” when he hears the tiny Whos calling for help, the Wizard does help her.[9]  Pace the conventional view of the story, the Wizard did, in fact, fulfill his promises to each of the four comrades.  He gave symbolic but satisfactory trinkets to the Scarecrow, Tin Man and Lion, and he was willing and capable of returning Dorothy to Kansas in his balloon.  It was not the Wizard’s fault that when his balloon began to ascend, Dorothy went chasing after her dog and, thereby, missed her ride.  Although the Wizard was just a common man, he did, on the whole, do good and wonderful things.

As a common man who achieved wonderful things, the Wizard is a source of inspiration and support to those of us who see ourselves as common people.  When Dorothy lands in Oz, she is astonished at being hailed as a heroine and a witch, both because she had not done anything extraordinary and because there were no such things as witches in Kansas.  In the book, the Good Witch of the North[10] explains to Dorothy that there are witches and wizards in Oz because “the Land of Oz has never been civilized.”  There are none in Kansas because it is civilized.

Baum seems to be saying here that with civilization comes what we would today call cultural disillusionment, that is, no longer seeing the world as full of spirits and spirituality.  By the turn of the twentieth century, when Baum wrote the book, the scientific explanation of things had largely replaced explanations based on magic or religion.  The supernatural had been naturalized, and the wonder taken out of wonderful things.  This is what the philosopher Nietzsche meant when he said at the time that “God is dead.”  Baum, who eschewed conventional religion and was a member of the Ethical Culture Society, supported this secular and scientific trend.

The implication of the Good Witch’s explanation seems to be that in an uncivilized society such as Oz, the Wizard had to pretend that he had magic as a means of gaining the status he needed to build and rule over the Emerald City.  But, and this is the key, he was able to build and administer the city without magic, because he actually had no magical abilities.  The conclusion that Baum seems to want us to reach is that common people can do this same sort of thing in Kansas and elsewhere in our mundane world.  They can build wonderful cities full of good things for all and sundry, even for immigrant scarecrows and tin men.  Baum was personally a political supporter of first Populism and then Progressivism.  He was a democrat and a social reformer.  He believed in the power of ordinary people to do good and great things.

The book exemplifies this belief.  Ordinary people in the book achieve extraordinary results through ordinary means.  Dorothy kills the Wicked Witch of the East, something the Good Witch of the North admitted she was not powerful enough to do, by accidentally falling on her in a house.  Dorothy kills the Wicked Witch of the West by accidentally spilling a bucket of water on her.  And the Wizard supervises the mundane construction and operation of a wonderful city.

In a civilized society, Baum seemed to be saying, there are no witches or wizards with supernatural powers, and no “Great Men” of the sort nineteenth century conservatives such as Thomas Carlyle and William Graham Sumner claimed had made society and make history.  Baum was saying that ordinary people are obliged to make society and history by caring for each other.  This is what Dorothy and her friends did in combatting the Wicked Witch.  This is also what the Wizard had essentially done with the citizens of Emerald City in making their society.  He did not actually have any magic powers other than his caring for the people.  The city has been built through the cooperative efforts of the citizens, with the Wizard acting merely as city manager.  And that, according to Baum, is civilization at its highest.

Seeing Emerald City through a Utopian Lens.

“I once asked the Wizard of Oz

For the secret of his land.

He said ‘Just take a look around here.

Seven dwarves and Little Boy Blue,

Uncle Remus and Snow White, too.

(Now, just between us.

That’s what is known as integration.)’”

Chuck Mangione.


If the Wizard is the center of the story, then Emerald City is the centerpiece of the book.  Emerald City is described as an ideal society, almost a utopian cooperative community.  Baum was politically what we would call a liberal.  In his writings as a journalist and in his stage plays, he frequently criticized powerful capitalists and conservative politicians.  Although The Wonderful Wizard of Oz does not include any specific political references, it has been seen as a populist allegory (see Footnote #6 above) and, more importantly, it includes a progressive vision of society in the form of Emerald City.  It was a vision in line with other reformers in his time.

The period of the late nineteenth through the early twentieth century was an age of reform.  The country seemed to recoil from the crassness of the previous decades of rampant corruption and cutthroat capitalism, the so-called Gilded Age (Mark Twain) or Brown Decades (Lewis Mumford).  It was also an age of reaction against the right-wing Social Darwinian ideology that had been promoted by the business elites of the time. Social Darwinism, a misnomer and misuse of the theory of evolution that was rejected by Darwin, promoted the dominance of the fittest in society, with fitness mainly defined in terms of wealth.  Developed in England by Herbert Spencer and in the United States by William Graham Sumner, this theory idealized laissez-faire competitive capitalism in which winners, meaning the wealthy, should deservedly thrive, and losers, meaning the poor, should deservedly die off.[11]

The theory also promoted what we would today call a zero-sum approach to society.  It held that there is only a limited amount of wealth and well-being in the world, and one person’s gain is another person’s loss.  Social relations are invariably invidious because my success inevitably results in your failure, and vice versa.  If I win, you lose.  If you win, I lose.  We cannot both succeed.  The theory, thereby, promoted a Hobbesian war of each against all, and a Malthusian rejection of cooperation and compassion.  Social Darwinism was influential among the political and economic elites of the late nineteenth century, and was virtually written into the Constitution by a right-wing majority on the Supreme Court.[12]

Populism in the late nineteenth century and Progressivism in the early twentieth century emerged as political and social movements against the Social Darwinian political and social conditions of the time.  As part of this reform wave, there was a flood of utopian proposals, both theoretical and experimental.  Many of these proposals were in the form of novels.  Edward Bellamy’s utopian novel Looking Backward (1886) was the most popular book of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, other than the Bible.  Utopian novels were also written by William Dean Howells, the dean of American literature, Ignatius Donnelly, the Populist leader, and many other important writers.

There was also an upsurge in utopian community experiments.  These included the Equality Colony in Washington, founded in 1900, and the Fairhope Community in Alabama, founded in 1894 and still in existence.[13]  Many of these communities were racially and ethnically integrated, and were based on gender equality.  Many were made up of recent immigrants to America.

In his portrayal of Emerald City, Baum played into a genre of utopian literature with which readers in his time were very familiar.  It is significant that the citizens of Emerald City greeted and cared for Dorothy and her odd assortment of companions – a walking, talking scarecrow, tin man and lion; how weird must that have seemed – as though they were ordinary people and good friends. The story is infused with examples of immigration and cultural pluralism, with people and creatures of all sorts living together in the same community or in contiguous communities.

Dorothy and her companions were themselves all immigrants – strangers in this strange land – as was even the Wizard.  Their differentness was accepted in Oz, and even welcomed.  The citizens of Emerald City, in turn, had no problem with the Scarecrow becoming the head of their government when the Wizard left.  It is a vision of a cooperative and inclusive society to which I think readers of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, and viewers of the movies based on the book, have responded positively from Baum’s time to ours.

Believing is Seeing: William James as the Wizard.

“Fairy tales can come true,

It can happen to you,

If you’re young at heart.”

Lyrics by Johnny Richards.

Sung by Frank Sinatra.

The Wonderful Wizard of Oz was written as a kids’ book for the young and the young at heart.  My father used to say that the key to staying young at heart was to avoid hardening of the arteries and hardening of the categories.  Hardening of the arteries results from a buildup of plaque in your blood vessels which blocks the flow of blood in your body, and can lead to heart attack.  Hardening of the categories results from a buildup of prejudice in your opinions which blocks the flow of new ideas in your mind, and can lead to heartlessness.  Hardening of the arteries can usually be avoided with proper diet and exercise.  Hardening of the categories can be avoided by keeping one’s mind open to new ideas and new people.  Closed-minded rigidity of any sort, whether ideological, philosophical, cultural, racial, religious, or otherwise, can lead to the hardening of one’s ethical categories, and to heartlessness.  The Wonderful Wizard of Oz is a book intended to keep the mind open and the heart healthy.

Baum said in his introduction to the book that he wrote it as “a modern fairy tale in which the wonderment and joy are retained and the heartaches and nightmares are left out.”  Traditional children’s stories were full of horrible things happening to children, sometimes because they did not obey the rules that their elders had laid upon them, other times because they were merely curious or adventurous, still other times just because they innocently happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.  Most important, the stories often punished trustfulness.  Wicked witches, goblins, and other deceptively foul creatures were portrayed as everywhere out there seducing children to their doom.  “Want a nice piece of candy or bite of apple, dearie?”  That sort of thing.  These stories were intended to scare kids straight, and put them in fear of painful consequences if they did not follow the straight and narrow path laid out for them by their elders.

The Wonderful Wizard of Oz is a different sort of story.  There are plenty of evils to be avoided in the book, but curiosity and adventurous behavior are rewarded and, most important, the story rewards trustfulness.  Dorothy believes in other people, no matter how strange they may appear.  She trusts them, and she helps them to believe in themselves.  Other people, in turn, believe in her, so that she is able to believe in herself.  It is a virtuous circle, and it is the same with the Scarecrow, the Tin Man, the Lion, and the Wizard.  Others believe in them, they believe in others, and they believe in themselves.  They have the will to believe in each other, and that belief is fulfilled.  Help and be helped is the moral of the story.  And caring is the best magic.

This moral of Baum’s story ran directly counter to the precepts of the Social Darwinian and zero-sum thinking of the business elites, and to the conventional educational practices of the time which largely reflected that thinking.  Baum’s intentions were, however, directly in line with the progressive educational practices and pragmatic philosophical theories being developed at the turn of the twentieth century, especially those of William James and John Dewey.

Conventional teaching was based largely on rote memorization, harsh discipline, competitive testing, and student rankings.  Some students were, thereby, categorized and characterized as winners, with others as losers.  It was Social Darwinism in practice.  These zero-sum practices were being challenged by educators, such as James and Dewey, who wanted students to learn how to think critically and act creatively, and who emphasized learning through doing, rather than rote memorization.[14]  James and Dewey argued that the way people learn best, whether they be elite scientists or common people, is through experimenting, that is, through developing hypotheses and then testing them.  It is also, they claimed, the way people live best, that is, by deciding to believe in something, and then seeing if it works.

James and Dewey incorporated this progressive educational theory in a broader philosophy called pragmatism.  Both started as psychologists before turning to philosophy and education, and pragmatism was, in turns, an epistemology, an ontology, and a moral philosophy.  James was world-famous as the psychologist who originated of the “stream of consciousness” theory of thinking, before pivoting into theories of learning, education, and moral philosophy.  In 1896, he wrote an influential essay called “The Will to Believe.”  I have no idea whether Baum read the essay, but the essay reflected currents of thought with which Baum would have been familiar, and I think the themes of the essay are nicely reflected in the story of the Wizard of Oz.[15]

James outlines three key elements of pragmatism in “The Will to Believe” that are reflected in The Wizard of Oz and the actions of the Wizard.  These are that life is a participant experiment, that beliefs can be self-fulfilling, and that truth is established collectively.  First, life is a participant experiment.  In trying to resolve the problems with which we are faced, we are invariably faced with options from which to choose, and for which we never have sufficient evidence to make obvious what is the right choice.  So, we are obliged to martial the best available evidence about our options, develop a plausible hypothesis as to what might the best choice, and then make a leap of faith into the future.[16]

Second, the fact that we believe in something – with the emphasis on “we,” not merely “I” – can help make it so.  “Faith in a fact can help create the fact,” James claimed.[17]  He was not talking about miracles, or about a blind faith that eschews contrary facts, as some critics of James’ essay have claimed.  He was talking about acting in a way that can help create the facts that support our hypotheses.  Like “The Little Engine that Could,” if we believe we can, maybe we can.

Third, and most important, the verification of a hypothesis is a collective action, not an individual act.  It is not the case, as some critics have contended, that pragmatists hold that if something works for you, it is true for you, regardless of what others think.  Pragmatism is a collectivist and cooperative philosophy.  It holds that a person cannot know anything about himself or herself, or even that he or she is a self, without verification from other people.  In turn, a person cannot verify the validity of the choices that he or she has made without the supportive opinions of others.  “Our faith is faith in someone else’s faith,” James contended.[18]  There is no truth for oneself alone, only collective conclusions.  And the more extensive the collectivity that supports a conclusion, the more reliable the conclusion.

I think that pragmatism best describes the way that Dorothy and her companions made their way in the land of Oz, making choices, taking chances, and believing in each other and each other’s beliefs.  It is different than the philosophy reflected in conventional interpretations of The Wizard of Oz.  The conventional interpretations generally reflect a world view that can be characterized as “foundationalist” and “essentialist,” and that is “absolutist.”   In this world view, truth is something that is found.  That is, it already exists and has always existed, even if we don’t know it.  Each person and thing also has an essence, that already exists and has always existed.  And whatever is true, has always and absolutely been true, and always will be.

In this view, you are what you are, and that is that.  While you may find that you are different than the way you mistakenly thought you were, for example, the Scarecrow thinking he was stupid, you cannot change who or what you are.  The Scarecrow found that he was smart, the Tin Man found that he was compassionate, and the Lion found that he was brave.  But they already were those things, albeit they hadn’t realized it.  This essentialist and absolutist view dominated most philosophical and scientific thinking during the nineteenth century.

Pragmatism, in contrast, is a “constructionist” and “existentialist” philosophy, and is “relativist.”  That is, truth is something that is made, including truths about oneself.  In this view, the Scarecrow made himself smart with the help of Dorothy and the others.  Having been rescued by Dorothy from being stuck on a pole, he began to experiment with his intelligence, developing it in practice.  Significantly, some of his early hypotheses did not pan out, as when he walked into a big hole, and had to be rescued by the Tin Man.  Asked why he had not walked around the hole, the Scarecrow claimed that he did not know any better because he did not have any brains.  But very soon, he was figuring out clever ways for the comrades to get over big ditches, without falling in, and solving all sorts of other problems that they faced.  He was learning through experience, and making himself smart.[19]  The Scarecrow, and the other comrades as well, exemplified pragmatic philosophy and progressive education in action.

Pragmatism has been called America’s philosophy, both because it is the only major philosophical school made in America, and because it seems to reflect the way in which Americans have generally approached things when they are not afraid and are not reacting defensively.  Pragmatism is a flexible and tolerant way of thinking about things.  It is a philosophy of hope and hopefulness.  Fear can drive people to defensive absolutisms, and fear most often trumps/Trumps hope.  When Americans heed their better angels, they think and act positively and pragmatically.  When Americans are demagogued and frightened into following their darker angels, they think and act negatively and arbitrarily.  The Wizard of Oz is an invocation of tolerance, flexibility, hopefulness, and pragmatism.

Bringing Oz to Kansas: Pragmatism in Practice.

 “There’s no place like home.”

Dorothy in The Wonderful Wizard of Oz.

The Wonderful Wizard of Oz opens with Dorothy’s description of her home in Kansas.  Everything she sees is gray and grim.  The landscape is gray and sparsely vegetated.  The buildings and furnishings are gray and dilapidated.  Her Aunt and Uncle are gray-faced and grim, worn and oppressed by efforts to keep their farm going.  Dorothy complains that they never smile or laugh, and that they are all completely isolated from their neighbors.  Dorothy has no one to cheer her up, except her dog.[20]

When Dorothy gets to Oz, she finds that, despite the Bad Witches, there is dancing, singing, laughing, and lots of color.  After Dorothy meets the Scarecrow and describes Kansas to him, the Scarecrow cannot understand why anyone would want to live in Kansas, and why Dorothy would not want to stay in Oz, which is beautiful and filled with interesting people.  When she answers that “There is no place like home,” the Scarecrow replies facetiously, and with false modesty, “Of course I cannot understand it.  If your heads were stuffed with straw, like mine, you would probably all live in the beautiful places, and your Kansas would have no people in it at all.”[21]  That is, he facetiously claims, only brainless people like him would want to live in beautiful places.  Brainy Kansans like Dorothy would naturally choose to live in desolation.  This is a telling remark that almost certainly hits its mark with readers, and maybe with Dorothy as well.

Almost the first thing Dorothy says, when the Munchkins are celebrating her as a hero for killing the Wicked Witch of the East, is that she wants to go home because her aunt and uncle might be worrying about her.[22]  She cares deeply about her family.  An unanswered question in the story is what will Dorothy do when she gets back to Kansas.  Having seen Oz and Emerald City will she be content to leave things in Kansas as they are, with her gray-faced Aunt and Uncle slaving away so hard for so little, with her gray surroundings, and with her boring life?

Dorothy is like a student who has gone away to college, or a soldier who has gone off to other lands, and then comes back to see home in a new and critical light.  Having returned for the sake of her family, what might Dorothy do further for their sake?  There’s no place like home, but what should that home be like?  Most readers, I think, hope Dorothy will do something to improve her home and the society in which she lives.

The World in Our Minds: A Zero-Sum Game or a Mutual Aid Society.

“Come on legs keep movin’

Don’t you lose no ground

You just keep on keepin’ on

On the road that you choose.”

Lyrics by Charlie Smalls.

Sung by Diana Ross & Michael Jackson.

Why do some people feel threatened by immigrants, seeing them as competitors who will take their jobs and impoverish them, while others welcome immigrants as resources who will help enrich everyone?  Why are some people threatened by cultural pluralism as a dilution of their native culture, while others welcome diversity as a cultural enrichment?  Why do some people picture the world as a zero-sum game in which your advancement is inevitably at my expense, whereas other people see the world as a mutual-aid society in which the success of each is the basis for the advancement of all?  Why is the apt proverb for some people that a rising tide sustains some but drowns others, whereas for others it is that a rising tide raises all?

How we feel towards others must come, at least in part, from what we read, see and listen to, that is, the books, videos and songs from which we draw our picture of the world, and react to phenomena such as immigration and enculturation.  Some books, videos and songs portray aliens as inherently dangerous and cultural change as disastrous.  Many of the violent stories, songs and video games that appeal to adolescents have those themes.  They portray life as a zero-sum game, with every person for him/herself.

Most stories, songs and movies that appeal to younger and older audiences take a different tack, and portray change and diversity as constructive and cooperative.  The stories of Charles Dickens and the Harry Potter books by J.K. Rowling have that theme.  There is plenty of violence and there are evil characters in their books, but the emphasis is on the overriding value of trust and cooperation, rather than mistrust and conflict.  The Wizard of Oz is similar.  The contrast between most children’s literature and most adolescent media is stark and alarming.   

One of the reasons we read books and watch movies, and then reread and re-watch them, is because we feel comfortable in the worlds they portray.  Some people seem to feel more comfortable in imaginary worlds that are scary and reflect violent zero-sum societies.  Others seem more comfortable in mutual aid worlds such as that constructed by Dickens and Rowling.  How and why this is the case is a mystery to me.

This essay is being written on November 14, 2016 in the immediate aftermath of a recent presidential election in which the American people seem to be sharply divided between supporters of Donald Trump and his zero-sum view of the world, and supporters of Hillary Clinton and her mutual aid view.  Much to my regret, fear trumped and Trumped in this election.  She got the most popular votes, but he got the most electoral votes.  Supporters of Clinton are currently in despair at how to bridge the cultural gap between them and Trump’s supporters.  It may be that the continuing popularity among all segments of our population of The Wizard of Oz is an indication that we may have more in common, and that there may be a mutual aid ethic that underlies our differences and may provide a basis for future amity and agreement.

[1] The Wonderful Wizard of Oz   Wikipedia.  Accessed 11/14/16.

[2] Ilan Shira. “Why ‘The Wizard of Oz’ is the most popular film of all time.”  Psychology Today.  6/4/10.

[3] L. Frank Baum. The Wizard of Oz. Aladdin Classics: New York, 1999. pp.50, 54, 57, 139.

[4] L. Frank Baum. The Wizard of Oz. Aladdin Classics: New York, 1999. pp.50-51, 57-58, 63, 72.

[5] William Graham Sumner. Social Darwinism.  Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, Inc, 1963.

[6] There is a collateral interpretation of the story that it is a Populist allegory.  The Populists were a late nineteenth century reform movement of small farmers and workers against the big capitalists who were ostensibly oppressing them.  Baum supported the Populists.  In this interpretation, the witches represent the capitalists, the Scarecrow is the farmers, the Tin Man is the workers, and the Lion is William Jennings Bryan, who was called The Lion of the West and who coopted the Populists in his failed Presidential campaign of 1896.  I have no problem with this Populist interpretation.  It might help explain the story’s popularity in the early 1900’s, albeit, it does not explain its ongoing popularity.  I would object, however, to including in it, as some critics do, a picture of the Populists as individualistic small farmers, a picture that would lend support to the idea that the story promotes individualism.  I reject both the picture of Populism as individualistic and the idea that the story promotes individualism.

[7] Citations in this essay will be to the book The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, but they refer as well to the movie The Wizard of Oz with which readers may be more familiar and which essentially follows the book.

[8] L. Frank Baum. The Wizard of Oz. Aladdin Classics: New York, 1999. pp.142-143, 147.

[9] L. Frank Baum. The Wizard of Oz. Aladdin Classics: New York, 1999. p.96.

[10] In the book, there is a Good Witch of the North who greets Dorothy at the beginning of the story and sets her on her way to see the Wizard, and a Good Witch of the South who meets her at the end and sets her on her way home.  The North Witch puts the magic shoes on Dorothy, but tells Dorothy that she does not know how they work.  It is only the South Witch who seems to know how they work, and only she who can explain it to Dorothy when Dorothy finally meets up with her at the end of the story.  In the Judy Garland movie, the director merged the two witches into one witch, for some unknown reason, and it creates an unnecessary question of why the witch didn’t tell Dorothy how to use the shoes when she first met her.  She put Dorothy to a lot of unnecessary trouble, which was not a nice thing for a good witch to do.

[11] Richard Hofstadter. Social Darwinism in American Thought.  Boston: Beacon Press, 1955.

[12] Robert McCloskey. American Conservatism in the Age of Enterprise, 1865-1910. New York: Harper & Row, 1951.

[13] Robert Sutton. Communal Utopias and the American Experience: Secular Communities, 1824-2000.  

Westport, CN: Praeger, 2004.  “List of American Utopian Communities.” Wikipedia. Accessed 11/14/16.

[14] William James.  Talks to Teachers on Psychology. Mineola, NY: Dover, 2001.

John Dewey. The Child and the Curriculum. Chicago: University of Chicago, 1956.

[15] William James. “The Will to Believe.” Essays on Faith and Morals. New York: World Publishing Co., 1962.


[16] William James. “The Will to Believe.” Essays on Faith and Morals. New York: World Publishing Co., 1962.


[17] William James. “The Will to Believe.” Essays on Faith and Morals. New York: World Publishing Co., 1962.


[18] William James. “The Will to Believe.” Essays on Faith and Morals. New York: World Publishing Co., 1962.


[19] L. Frank Baum. The Wizard of Oz. Aladdin Classics: New York, 1999. pp.39, 54-58.

[20] In the book, there are no farmhands for company and diversion.

[21] L. Frank Baum. The Wizard of Oz. Aladdin Classics: New York, 1999. pp.28-29.

[22] L. Frank Baum. The Wizard of Oz. Aladdin Classics: New York, 1999. p.13.