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.

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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: Diogenes 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” not, as it is usually interpreted, his concept of “the look;” and, (2) The play functions as a sort of Rorschach Test of a person’s social attitudes.  It is likely that people who see the play as a reflection of “the look” will tolerate “bad faith” in others, and possibly themselves.  

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.

 America.

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.

pp.32-62.

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

pp.33-35,62.

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

p.56.

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

p.40.

[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.

 

Resolving the Double-Entendres in Hard Times: Utopian Socialism in the Novels of Charles Dickens

Resolving the Double-Entendres in Hard Times:

Utopian Socialism in the Novels of Charles Dickens

Burton Weltman

 1.Introduction: Dickens and Socialism?

“The real objective of Socialism is human brotherhood.”

George Orwell. The Tribune, 1943.

Dickens a socialist?  Dickens a utopian?  Most readers of the novels of Charles Dickens would probably regard these questions with incredulity.  To many readers, Dickens’ novels are stories of cheerful folks regaling themselves with sumptuous repasts while reclining at a cozy fireside.  They read his books as fairy tales that do not significantly challenge readers intellectually, emotionally or ethically.  Dickens is said to have written kid stuff that also appeals to adults.  His stories involve easy criticism of unjust Victorian social institutions that are long gone, and invoke easy moral judgments against the neglect of impoverished children.  Rich philanthropists often save the day.  And the stories resolve in happy endings, usually with the marriage of some long suffering couple.  No socialism here, those readers would say.

Other readers see another side to Dickens’ works.  They read his books as dark tales that got darker as Dickens got older.  Murder, starvation, neglect, bankruptcy, cruelty and injustices of all sorts pervade his stories.  Public institutions of every sort are portrayed as corrupt, incompetent and cruel, with no hope for reformation.  Although most of his novels have superficially happy endings, in which a hero or heroine marries a long sought-after mate, disaster or death are the fate of most of Dickens’ characters along the way.  And there is usually a shadow over even the nuptials of the happy couple.  No utopianism here, those readers would say.

But there is a third side to Dickens.  Dickens was neither a Pollyanna nor a cynic and negativist.  In every one of his novels, there are examples of compassionate and cooperative communities of people who work and live together.  Idylls and blessed isles in a generally hard and hard-hearted world, they provide glimmers of hope for humanity, and for Dickens’ readers, in the midst of the bleak times and dark happenings that pervade his books.  Their configurations are various.  They can be families, friendship groups, formal organizations, informal collectives, taverns, commercial businesses, factories, neighborhoods, or towns.  They take different forms, but empathy and a “one for all, all for one” ethos is at the core of each.

These communities include Wemmick’s bower in Great Expectations, a tiny retreat for family and friends from the horrors of daily life.  George’s shooting gallery in Bleak House, a haven for the homeless and helpless.  Small family businesses such as the Bagnet’s music shop in Bleak House and Solomon Gills’ chandler shop in Dombey and Son.  Factories such as Daniel Doyce’s in Little Dorrit, George Rouncewell’s in Bleak House, and the paper mill in which Lizzie Hexam finds refuge in Our Mutual Friend.  Pickwick’s social club in The Pickwick Papers.  The Green Dragon tavern in Martin Chuzzlewit.  Mr. Crummles’ theatre group in Nicholas Nickleby.  Even Fagin’s gang of thieving boys in Oliver Twist.  And Sleary’s circus in Hard Times, an oasis of caring in an emotional desert.  In the midst of the hard realities that dominate the novels, these sites and situations can provide comfort and hope to readers.  And it is these compassionate communities that place Dickens in the company of the utopian socialists.

It is easy to overlook these communities in Dickens’ books and underestimate their influence on readers.  Almost all of them play a secondary role in the plots of the novels.  They are byways that the main characters pass through or sideshows that they encounter.  But that does not detract from their interest, their importance, or their effect on readers.  The main characters in Dickens’ books are often boring, bland, and just plain soppy.  It is his minor characters who are usually more interesting to readers, and seemingly to Dickens as well.  Similarly, these compassionate communities are secondary sites and situations in Dickens’ novels, but they often provide the most interesting scenes in his books, and the most important moral examples.

Dickens’ compassionate communities offer glimpses of collective good will that is distinct from the individual achievements of his main characters.  These communities are often idealized.  They are, nonetheless, often more realistic than the heroic deeds of the main characters, which are largely beyond the ken of ordinary people.  They exemplify collective achievement of the sort that ordinary people might envision accomplishing together.  And the compassionate communities stand in stark contrast to the dysfunctional families, the dystopian cities, and the other grim sites and situations that predominate in Dickens’ stories.

The thesis of this essay is that beneath the grimy surface of his novels, Charles Dickens was a utopian socialist of the heart.  That is, through his portrayal of compassionate communities, Dickens promoted ideas and ideals that reflected the neonate socialist movement of early to mid-nineteenth century England.  Because the movement was supposedly based on sentiment rather than science, and on vague hopes rather than precise predictions, it later came to be characterized and denigrated as “utopian” by ostensibly more realistic radicals.  But the movement provided a social and moral template to the era that influenced a broad swath of the population, especially the working class and intellectuals, including many who were not explicitly socialists.

Adherents of the so-called utopian socialist movement were dismayed by the social, economic, and environmental harm being wrought by industrial capitalism.  They complained that capitalist society was ugly, immoral, and inefficient.  Capitalism was a heartless economic system whose main product was hardhearted people.  Inspired by the ethical principle of “From each according to his/her abilities, to each according to his/her needs,” a formula that was created by the utopian socialist Louis Blanc, utopian socialists hoped to replace the dog-eat-dog competition of capitalism with cooperative communities.  They intended to do this one family, farm, factory, and town at a time.  It was a grass-roots, local-control, small-is-beautiful movement.

Prominent among the leadership of the utopian socialists were the Englishman Robert Owen, and the Frenchmen Charles Fourier and le Comte de Saint-Simon.  The word “socialism” was invented by followers of Saint-Simon during the 1820’s.  The ideas of these three men were widely discussed, and were the inspiration behind many cooperative ventures.  Each of them had detailed plans for how they thought a community should operate, and some of the specific proposals of Fourier and Saint-Simon were bizarre.  But the humanistic sentiment behind their proposals, and the general outline of their proposed communities — which can be characterized as cooperative hierarchies and hierarchical cooperatives — were a big part of the intellectual background of the era that Dickens absorbed and that his works reflect.

While Dickens did not identify himself as a socialist, and did not subscribe to the specific proposals of any of the prominent utopians, his writings bespeak an underlying utopian socialist sentiment and sentimentality that I believe was one of the reasons for his popularity during the nineteenth century, and is one of the reasons for his enduring popularity today.  His portraits of compassionate communities resonate with readers.  The novel Hard Times will be a focus of this essay.  It revolves around the stultifying effect that rote education has on students, and the devastating effect that industrial capitalism had on workers and the environment.  It is not one of Dickens’ most popular books, but it most clearly exemplifies his socialist sympathies.

2. Dickens and Capitalism: Critic or Apologist?

A Christmas Carol cannot be [considered] a story that promotes socialism because it is a story that depends upon capitalism.”

Jacqueline Issacs, Blog, 2012

The question of whether Charles Dickens should be considered a socialist has been a bone of contention from his time to the present.  When the novel Hard Times was published in 1854, times were hard in England, and the book is a scathing indictment of industrial capitalism as it was developing.  But is it socialism?

Some socialists have claimed Dickens as one of their own, others have eschewed him as an apologist for capitalism.  Karl Marx, for example, claimed that in Hard Times Dickens had “issued to the world more political and social truths than have been uttered by all the professional politicians, publicists and moralists put together.”  Other socialists, such as George Bernard Shaw, cited Dickens’ negative portrait of the labor leader Slackbridge in Hard Times as evidence that he was not a socialist.  Still other socialists claimed that Dickens was not only not a socialist, he was not even a social reformer, and was merely an apologist for the status quo.[1]

More sympathetic critics have countered that Dickens was portraying Slackbridge as merely the counterpart of the capitalist Bounderby, that is, as someone exploiting workers.  They have noted that Dickens publicly supported labor unions and frequently encouraged workers to organize themselves.[2]  In reporting on a labor strike that occurred during the time he was writing Hard Times, Dickens extolled one of the strike leaders for his emphasis on peacefully settling the dispute, and for raising the possibility of workers’ cooperatives.[3]  And in discussing Hard Times at a meeting of the Mechanics Institute in the industrial town of Birmingham, he exhorted the workers there to organize so as to “work for their own good and for the welfare of society.”[4]

Anti-socialists have, in turn, excoriated what they saw as Dickens’ socialist sympathies.  Thomas Macaulay, the preeminent English historian and literary critic of Dickens’ time, and an influential mainstream politician, condemned Hard Times as “sullen socialism.”  He claimed that Dickens was an ignoramus and did not know what he was writing about.  Other more sympathetic anti-socialists have argued that Dickens was not condoning socialism or condemning capitalism in the book, merely criticizing some of the excesses of industrialism in his era.[5]

The question of whether Dickens was a socialist becomes even more complicated when one peruses his other books.  Those who claim Dickens was not a socialist point to the large number of wealthy characters in his novels whose philanthropy and benevolence save the day.  These include Mr. Brownlow in Oliver Twist, John Jarndyce in Bleak House, Mr. Boffin in Our Mutual Friend, and the reformed Scrooge in A Christmas Carol.  Without their capitalist wealth, these characters would not have been able to do good.  These commentators point also to Dickens’ fears of the rioting masses in Barnaby Rudge and A Tale of Two Cities, and the absence in his books of any call for central and centralized government intervention in the economy.

Those who claim Dickens was a socialist point to the large number of capitalists whom he portrays as heartless villains and greedy egotists.  These include the Ralph Nickleby in Nicholas Nickleby, Paul Dombey, Sr. in Dombey and Son, Anthony and Jonas Chuzzlewit in Martin Chuzzlewit, and Josiah Bounderby in Hard Times.  They also point to the sympathy Dickens extends to the poor in his books, and the scathing criticism he directs at governmental institutions that uphold the capitalist status quo. These institutions include the Courts of Chancery in Bleak House, the patent system in Little Dorrit, the criminal justice system in Great Expectations, the welfare/workhouse system in Our Mutual Friend, and the orphanages in Oliver Twist.  Each of them is cruel and incompetent.

So, which is it?  Was or was not Dickens a socialist?  His books seem to provide evidence on both sides of the question.  Are his social views coherent or a hodge-podge?  Can one resolve what seem to be contradictions, ambivalences, and double-entendres in his social ideas?

3.Dickens and Definitions of Socialism: Utopian and Scientific.

“For many a decade past, the history of industry and commerce is but the history of the revolt of modern productive forces against the property relations [of capitalism]…The conditions of bourgeois society are too narrow to comprise the wealth created by them.”

Karl Marx, The Communist Manifesto, 1848

The debate about Dickens’ political views has often been unnecessarily muddled because debaters were using different definitions of socialism.  The word socialism can mean many different things, and many a heated political argument has floundered on the fact that the combatants were assuming different definitions of the term.  In particular, the definitions of socialism that most people use today are quite different than the definition assumed by most people in Dickens’ time.  If one uses definitions of socialism that have been generally accepted since the late nineteenth century, Dickens was no socialist.  But if one uses the definition that was most prominent in his time, he seemingly was.  Using that definition also has the effect of clearing up what seem to be conflicts between his socialist sentiments and his portrayals of benevolent rich people and rioting masses.

Definitions of socialism since the late nineteenth century have usually focused on the role of the central government in a country’s economy.  This was not the case during the early nineteenth century when socialism usually meant decentralization.  The emphasis of more recent socialists on the central government and on centralized control of the economy seemed to follow logically from the huge concentrations of land, industry and wealth that developed during the mid to late nineteenth century, and that continue to the present.  In this context, socialism has generally been described as an economic system that is founded on the presumptions that businesses will be publicly owned, and that the central government will control the economy.  These are presumptions that for many socialists can be overcome if it can be shown that private ownership and/or free markets in particular businesses would be more efficient and fairer to the public.

Discussions of socialism since the late nineteenth century have usually been based on scientific analyses of hard facts and material factors, unlike the supposedly soft and sentimental, ethical and aesthetic approaches of the early nineteenth century utopians.  Following the lead of self-styled scientific socialists, such as Karl Marx, most socialists came to consider socialism to be a historically logical stage of social development.  They also claim it is development that must be embraced if liberty and democracy are to thrive, and even survive.  Most anti-socialists have rejected socialism on the supposedly scientific grounds that centralized control of a large-scale economy would not work, and that socialism would undermine economic progress.  They also contend that a socialist economy would present a fatal danger to democracy and freedom.

Discussions of socialism have been further complicated by the fact that socialists since the late nineteenth century have often differed as to how much control the central government should exercise, and how a socialist society can and should be achieved.  Socialists take a range of positions on the role of the public and private sectors in the economy.  Some insist on the goal of a highly centralized command economy.  They say that only if the government runs the economy according to a central plan can the system be considered socialist, and can it work.  Other socialists promote a less centralized and more market-based socialism.  Most of these would allow small private businesses, which could even constitute a majority of the economy, so long as they do not exploit their workers or do public harm.  Many would also allow some economic activities to be coordinated through a marketplace, so long as it operates in the public interest.

As to establishing socialism, some insist that it can be achieved only through revolution, and an immediate and complete takeover of the government and the economy.  They consider any attempt at social reform or a gradual move toward socialism to be a betrayal of the movement and a sell-out to capitalism.  Others claim, however, that socialism can best be achieved through social reforms, and a gradual socialization of the economy through political compromises and incremental changes.  These two groups have often fought each other as much as they have fought their pro-capitalist opponents.[6]

Using present-day definitions of socialism, Dickens was not a socialist.  He did not call for government control over the economy, whether centralized or decentralized, and whether by revolution or reform.   But neither does Dickens seem to have been a devotee of capitalism.  The point is that to most self-styled socialists in early to mid-nineteenth century England, socialism did not mean establishing government control over the economy.  And it did not primarily involve either political revolution or political reform.  It meant establishing cooperative farms, factories, communes and communities that operated on the principle of “From each according to his/her abilities; to each according to his/her needs.”  These radicals hoped to evolve a socialist society one cooperative communal group at a time.  And it is in this context that Dickens should be considered a socialist.

4.Utopian Socialism: Resolving the Double-Entendre of Radical Social Change.

“They [the utopian socialists] reject all political, and especially all revolutionary, action; they wish to attain their ends by peaceful means, and endeavor, by small experiments, necessarily doomed to failure, and by the force of example, to pave the way for the new social gospel.”

Karl Marx, The Communist Manifesto, 1848.

Utopian socialists did not promote either revolution or reform.  They believed that both were fraught with internal contradictions, and doomed to failure.  Utopians were also upset with the way conflicts between revolutionaries and reformers had seemingly divided and foiled movements for significant social change.  They hoped to overcome these contradictions and conflicts with their third way of achieving radical social change.

Utopians rejected revolution because revolutions seemed invariably to succumb to the logic of the ends justifying the means, and thereby enmeshed revolutionaries in evil actions that undermined their virtuous goals.  Revolutions also seemed to fail by either overdoing or under-doing social change.  Sometimes they completely demolished the old order, leaving intact none of the institutions that were needed as a foundation upon which to build a stable new regime.  The result was chaos and then dictatorship.  The French Revolution of 1789 was an example.

Other times revolutionaries left intact too much of the old order, and were undermined by institutional inertia and by people in power from the old regime who were committed to the old ways.  The result was generally regression back to the old order.  The French Revolution of 1830 was ostensibly an example of this.  The utopians believed that their cooperative communities could avoid these vicious cycles of revolutionary success and failure.

Utopians also rejected, for the most part, piecemeal reform movements because they seemed invariably to lead to the means overriding the ends, with reformers compromising their ideals, and making deals that sacrificed long-term goals for short-term gains.  British politics in the nineteenth century were notoriously stodgy and corrupt, so that social reform would invariably enmesh reformers in deals with the devil that would undermine their credibility as reformers.  Social reform would also involve reformers in so many small changes and small deals that their movement could be sidetracked, and they would lose sight of their radical goals.

Finally, the process of social reform would likely result in satisfying the needs of only some members of the movement for social change, or would pit the short-term gains of some against the short-term gains of others.  As a result, many of them might abandon the “all for one and one for all” ethic and the long-term goals of the movement.  The movement could, thereby, become divided against itself, and wither away.  The backroom deals that led to the electoral Reform Bill of 1832 and the repeal of the Corn Laws in 1844 exemplified these problems with reform.[7]

Utopian socialists hoped to avoid the contradictions and pitfalls of both reform and revolution through their community-building methods.  They were intent on establishing cooperative communities that would initiate a virtuous cycle and spiral toward a socialist society.   Theirs would be a bottom-up, grass roots movement, organizing people to build local institutions of civil society that could exemplify and sustain radical social change.

Utopians also hoped, thereby, to end the debate among social reformers since the Ancient Greeks about what came first, the Good Man or the Good Society.  Does one first have to make people good in order to have them make a good society?  Or does one first have to make society good which will then make people good?   Do people make society or does society make people?  Since the best answer to these questions is “Both,” it was a fruitless debate.  The utopians claimed their way would cut the Gordian knot that had for eons hogtied social reformers.

Cooperative communities would, on the one hand, provide their participants with a socialist experience and the immediacy of a socialist revolution, without the violence and turmoil of an actual revolution that can ruin the whole undertaking.  Cooperative communities would also, on the other hand, provide the world with working examples of socialism, and models for others to emulate.  The communities would provide a bit of the good society and good life here and now for their participants, and would also function as an advertisement for socialism to the world.  This would be a double-entendre that enlightened rather than baffled its auditors.

Cooperative communities would drive what could be called a Lamarckian form of social evolution, a form of survival of the fittest among social institutions.  Owen, Fourier, and Saint-Simon, each in his own way, proposed establishing experimental communities that they predicted would become successful mutations within the existing capitalist society, and would gradually take over the whole society.  Their communities could be incorporated just like any business corporation, but they would function as cooperative enterprises on behalf of their participants.  Utopian communities would, thereby, constitute a peaceful movement of gradual social change, an evolution to socialism one community at a time.

Although in branding the proposals of Owen, Fourier, and Saint-Simon as utopian, Marx and others of his time meant to disparage those proposals as impossible and even foolish, the ideas of the utopians did not seem utopian in early nineteenth century England or America.  And the fact that they did not succeed does not mean they were foolish.  In the era during which Dickens came of age and in which he set most of novels, businesses in England and America operated on a smaller scale than they did later in the century, a fact that made the utopians’ proposals feasible.

In the smaller businesses that predominated during this time, collaboration between owner and workers was usually possible, with the owner often personally involved in doing the day-to-day work alongside his employees.  This is the sort of thing Dickens portrayed in his descriptions of the factories of Daniel Doyce in Little Dorrit and George Rouncewell in Bleak House, and in the paper mill in which Lizzie Hexam finds refuge in Our Mutual Friend.  Given the collaborative nature of small businesses, small-scale and collaborative solutions to economic problems seemed practical to people then.  In turn, it seemed feasible to many that small-scale cooperative communities might establish socialist beachheads in the capitalist world.

The pattern of European immigration to America, a major phenomena during this period, also fitted with the utopians’ communitarian notions.  Most European immigrants to America during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries did not come as individuals.  Most came as part of a group of people who had lived in the same locality in their old country, and then settled together in their new country.  They came as a community with the intention of remaining a community.  This was also the way in which most European-Americans moved westward across the continent.  They moved in communities, in part because it took a lot of cooperation to establish a society in newly settled lands, but also because they were communal people.  In sum, the communal pattern of immigration to the United States and migration within the country contributed to the plausibility of developing cooperative socialist communities here.[8]

Dickens recognized in his novels the possibilities for developing compassionate communities, but he was not a starry-eyed fool about these possibilities.  He clearly realized that utopian dreams can often provide the opportunity for conmen to take advantage of naive people, or for muddle-headed do-gooders to stumble into disaster.  In Martin Chuzzlewit, for example, he bitterly describes an emigrant settlement in the United States which is based on his visit to the country in 1842.  The fictional community, which is called Eden, has been promoted by its developers as heaven on earth but it is, in reality, a hellish swamp and a deadly swindle.  In Bleak House, Dickens ridicules the impossible plans of do-gooders such as Mrs. Jellyby, who proposes to develop an idyllic commune of emigrants in Africa.  She neglects her own family in favor of this foolish, and essentially egoistic, piece of pseudo-philanthropy.

Dickens was also aware that cooperative communities can be used for ill purposes, as with Fagin’s gang of young thieves in Oliver Twist.  And he was aware of the tenuousness of compassionate communities, which is exemplified by the collection of people who lived with Mr.Peggotty in his beached houseboat in David Copperfield, before the commune was shattered by evil intruding from the outside world.

Dickens was aware of the potential pitfalls and pratfalls of utopian promises, but he seemed to be impressed even more with what he portrayed as the inveterate impulse of people to create compassionate communities.  Even Todgers boarding house for clerks and salesmen in Martin Chuzzlewit, which Dickens describes in the most ridiculous and pathetic terms, exemplifies this theme.  Dickens makes great fun of the pretensions of the inhabitants, each of whom styles himself as a connoisseur of something.  There is the sporting gentleman, the literary gentleman, the fashionable gentleman, and so forth.  None of them has any real claim to expertise in anything, and they are continually teasing each other and competing for status.  But they also implicitly conspire to uphold each other’s pretensions, and each has a place in the house’s pecking order, which is a touching and telling testament to their comradeship.       

Dickens’ books are full of small-scale compassionate communities in which people take care of each other in the face of adversity and in the midst of hostile environs.  From the Pickwick Club to Fagin’s gang of boys, from the workers in Doyce’s factory to the performers in Sleary’s circus, these groups operate with the “One for all, and all for one” mentality of the utopian socialists.  The hope that compassionate and cooperative communities can survive, thrive and replicate themselves seems quietly to underlie Dickens’ works.

5.Owen, Fourier, and Saint-Simon: Capitalism, Utopian Socialism, and Elitism.

“Train any population rationally, and they will be rational. Furnish honest and useful employments to those so trained, and such employments they will greatly prefer to dishonest or injurious occupations.”

Robert Owen.  A New View of Society.

Robert Owen was a late-eighteenth and early-nineteenth century British factory owner who was almost ubiquitous among British social activists during most of Dickens’ life.  He is considered the father in England of the cooperative movement, the socialist movement, the labor union movement, and the public education movement, all of which blossomed in the later nineteenth century.  Dickens’ critique of capitalist commercial and industrial practices, and the treatment of workers, women, and children in his society, was essentially similar to that of Owen.  His ideas of social change, especially regarding cooperation and education, also reflected Owens’.

Owen was an international celebrity, and highly regarded within both the working classes and the ruling classes.  He spoke several times to the English Parliament, and frequently met with high government officials, promoting his labor and cooperative schemes.  He spoke twice to Congress about the benefits of a cooperative economy during a visit to the United States during 1824-1825.  In the course of that visit, he established a cooperative socialist community at New Harmony, Indiana.  He was also well-received during this visit by then President John Quincy Adams and by past Presidents Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and James Monroe.

Owen was disgusted by what he saw as the evils, ugliness, and inefficiency of industrial capitalism as it was developing in England.  Workers were underpaid.  Children and women were overworked, and children were without educational opportunities.  Workers’ families lived in overcrowded and unsanitary conditions.  Industrial accidents were commonplace.  Demoralization was rampant.  Owen decided that this was not good for the factory owners and society as a whole, let alone the workers.  He was the un-Bounderby.

Owen concluded that paying his workers well and treating them as colleagues benefited both business and society.   He also claimed that laws to require higher wages and shorter working hours for workers, especially children and women, would be good for capital as well as labor.  And he argued that the establishment of free schools for children would develop better educated workers who could work more productively, and participate more responsibly in society.  He supported labor unions for workers but, significantly, opposed strikes of workers against their employers.  Finally, he organized and financed cooperative industrial and agricultural communities in England and America that he claimed could operate more efficiently and more fairly than capitalist enterprises.

Owen’s own factory at New Lanark in Scotland, where he put into effect many of his cooperative principles, was a magnet for social reformers.  Middle and upper class visitors were almost invariably enthralled by the humane way in which the workers and their families were treated, and impressed with the efficiency and profitability of the operation.  It was the antithesis of Coketown in Hard Times.  Owen’s books on moral improvement and human cooperation were best sellers and widely cited.  In addition to labor unions and cooperative communities, he founded several early childhood schools that were widely acclaimed as models of humane and effective education, the antithesis of Gradgrind’s school in Hard Times .

Owen promoted class cooperation rather than class conflict, and opposed labor strikes as a means of economic coercion against employers.  His proposals and projects were invariably coupled with paternalism and elitism.  He hoped for a more educated working class, but considered the workers of his day incapable of ruling society.  This was a common position among British liberals and radicals during the nineteenth century, among them the noted radical and eventual socialist John Stuart Mill, and Charles Dickens.[9]  That is, Owen combined socialism with elitism, interpreting the mantra of “From each according to his/her abilities” as a principle that required those with expertise and executive abilities to lead an enterprise or community, while those with abilities to do other tasks would work under the direction of their leaders.

The communitarian proposals of Fourier and Saint-Simon were also based on the principle of “From each according to his/her ability, to each according to his/her needs,” and they were also hierarchical.  Different abilities meant different positions in the power structure.  They likewise interpreted the Golden Rule — “Do unto others as you would have others do unto you if you were in their position.”– with an assumption that the working classes would naturally defer to the leadership of the educated and expert classes.  Hierarchy was consistent with the Golden Rule so long as workers were given due respect and their needs were duly met.

Fourierists and Saint-Simonians, as well as Owenites, were prominent in early to mid-nineteenth century England, France and America.  In the midst of the French Revolution of 1848, Louis Blanc, who was influenced by Owen and Saint-Simon, led a movement that got the French Assembly to establish a system of workers’ cooperatives that he hoped would be the beginnings of socialism in France.  Although the coops initially worked well, they were not sufficiently funded by the Assembly and eventually collapsed.

In the United States, Horace Greeley, the editor and publisher of the New-York Daily Tribune, which was the leading and largest American newspaper during the middle of the nineteenth century, was a follower of Fourier.  For many years, Greeley published a front-page column in his newspaper devoted to promoting Fourierism, and he helped establish several Fourierist communities.  Saint-Simon also inspired several communities in Europe and America.  Owenite, Fourierist and Saint-Simonian communities, and many others based on the ideas of other utopians, had mixed success.  Most lasted only a few years, but some lasted many decades.  The utopian socialist community at Amana, Iowa was so successful economically that it morphed into an appliance corporation that is still operating today.

Most important for Dickens’ social views, his mentor Thomas Carlyle, who provided most of the factual basis for A Tale of Two Cities and much of the critique of capitalism and utilitarian education for Hard Times, was a devotee of Saint-Simon.

6. Dickens and Carlyle: A Tale of Two Sentimentalities.

“No great man lives in vain.

The history of the world is but the biography of great men.”

Thomas Carlyle

Thomas Carlyle was an influential intellectual in mid-nineteenth century England.  A philosopher, essayist, and scholar with a first class university education, he was intellectually everything Dickens was not, and Dickens adulated Carlyle for his academic knowledge and analytical skills.  Although Dickens was considered a literary giant at the time, and Carlyle was merely one among many noteworthy intellectuals, Dickens publicly and repeatedly paid homage to Carlyle.  Carlyle was noted for his scathing criticism of utilitarian philosophy and industrial capitalism.  He promoted, instead, German idealist philosophy and a stringent morality.  His mantra that “Egoism is the source and summary of all faults and miseries” is a sentiment that rang true for Dickens, and is a theme that runs through all of Dickens’ work.

Carlyle also promoted the ideas of the French utopian Saint-Simon, and especially Saint-Simon’s criticism of idle aristocrats and plutocrats.  They were freeloaders who got rich off the sweat of peasants’ and workers’ brows, and from the expertise of inventors and entrepreneurs, but who did nothing in return.  This is a view that can be called “a producers’ ethic.”  Like Saint-Simon, Carlyle believed that the interests of entrepreneurs and workers were the same.  They were the producers in society.  Their common enemies were the parasitic aristocrats who extracted unearned rents from peasants who worked their land, and the moneyed capitalists who extracted unearned profits from workers who operated their factories.  Carlyle included hypocritically wealthy clergy and demagogic labor leaders in his list of parasites.  This producers’ ethic that Carlyle derived from Saint-Simon is reflected in Dickens’ works.

But Dickens and Carlyle differed over their views of ordinary people, and these differences magnified over time.  Carlyle became increasingly anti-democratic over the course of his life, and increasingly idealized great men in society and history.  Abhorring the crassness, commercialism and confusion of English society, and fearing the masses as an inherently ignorant and destructive mob, Carlyle called for “captains of industry” to take control of society and bring order to the world.  Dickens did not follow Carlyle in taking refuge in great men, or in disdaining ordinary people.  While Dickens publicly acknowledged adopting from Carlyle the criticisms of utilitarianism and industrialism that are contained in Hard Times, and he dedicated the book to his mentor, Carlyle was not enthusiastic about the endorsement.  There are characters in the book, including the capitalist Bounderby and the circus operator Sleary, that clash with Carlyle’s worship of great men and scorn for ordinary people.

Dickens always considered himself a political radical.  The term radical did not have the same programmatic implications then that it has now — times and social problems change and what is considered a radical program changes with them — but it had the same social and emotional implications.  Even as he was gaining a vaunted place within the Establishment through the popularity of his writings, Dickens maintained an intellectual position outside the Establishment and a political position against much of it.

Although Dickens used Carlyle’s scholarly reputation to support his own ideas, the scorn between the two men became mutual.[10]  Carlyle thought that Dickens was too soft.  Dickens thought that Carlyle idol-worshipped the powerful.  It could be said that Dickens related to Carlyle in the same way he used the happy marriages at the end of his novels.  Dickens believed in happy endings and in the value of Carlyle’s scholarship, but his thoughts and feelings went beyond them both.

7. Double-Entendres in the Political Ideas and Ideals of Charles Dickens.

“Fact, fact, fact, everywhere in the material aspect of the town;

fact, fact, fact, everywhere in the immaterial.

Charles Dickens.  Hard Times.

Dickens is famous for having written long novels full of short-hand verbal caricatures of his characters.  Many of these caricatures carry moral and political messages.  His description of Coketown in Hard Times as consisting only of dead and deadening facts is an example.  The political cartoon strip Doonesbury, by Gary Trudeau, has, similarly, been peopled by short-hand visual parodies of the strip’s characters.  President George W. Bush was, for example, represented by a Roman military helmet that covered an asterisk.  The asterisk referred to the questionable way in which he ascended to the Presidency in 2000, and the helmet referred to his pretensions of military glory in the invasion of Iraq.  President Bill Clinton was represented by a waffle, referring to his waffling on issues.  Doonesbury’s pictures spoke for themselves and in place of a thousand words.

Dickens did similar things with his characters, albeit using word pictures.  His method met with a mixed response.  Henry James, a hostile critic, faulted Dickens for creating what James thought were shallow characters who could be summarized in a simple caricature.  In contrast, G.K. Chesterton, an admirer, marveled at the moral and intellectual acuity of Dickens’ capsule characterizations.  E.M. Forster, another admirer, said that “Nearly every one [of Dickens’ characters] can be summed up in a sentence, and yet there is this wonderful feeling of human depth.”  Since most of Dickens’ novels go on at great length with a multitude of characters, he may have needed a shorthand way of referring to some of them.  He did this in several ways.

Sometimes Dickens pinpointed a person’s character through an image that stuck with the character throughout a book.   The moralizing hypocrite Pecksniff, a leading character in Martin Chuzzlewit, is described as like “a direction-post, which is always telling the way to a place, and never goes there.”  Pecksniff becomes, thereafter,  a synonym for double-dealing in the book.  The gluttonous hypocritical Reverend Chadband, a minor character in Bleak House, is described as “a large yellow man, with a fat smile, and a general appearance of having a good deal of train oil in his system.”  He sweats oil when he eats, and is thereafter denoted by his oleaginous appearance and oily speeches.

Other times Dickens denoted a character through some physical feature.  Carker, a villain in Dombey and Son, is described as having “two unbroken rows of glistening teeth, whose regularity and whiteness were quite distressing.  It was impossible to escape the observation of them, for he showed them whenever he spoke; and bore so wide a smile upon his countenance (a smile, however, very rarely, indeed, extending beyond his mouth), that there was something in it like the snarl of a cat.”  Thereafter, Dickens often referred to Carker through describing merely his teeth, and Carker’s teeth became almost a character in the book.

Rigaud, a villain in Little Dorrit, is similarly characterized by the fact that when he smiled “his mustache went up under his nose, and his nose came down over his mustache, in a very sinister and cruel manner.”  Thereafter, Dickens often describes merely the movements of a mustache upward and a nose downward in order to indicate to the reader that Rigaud is in the scene.  Pancks, a sympathetic character in Little Dorrit, is described as short and stout, and as making puffing and snorting sounds like a steam engine when he walked and talked.  Dickens frequently indicated Pancks’ presence in a scene through merely describing puffing and snorting sounds.

Finally, Dickens often pegged a character with a characteristic saying that thereafter stood in for the person.  Scrooge in A Christmas Carol is well-known for his exclamation “Bah, humbug.”  Micawber, an inveterate spendthrift and bankrupt in David Copperfield, is known for his epigram “Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditures nineteen pounds nineteen and six, result happiness.  Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditures twenty pounds naught and six, result misery.”  Uriah Heep, an underhanded villain in the same book, is known by his hypocritical mantra that “I’m ‘umble.”

In contrast to Heep, Mark Tapley, a genuinely self-deprecating hero in Martin Chuzzlewit, is characterized by the refrain “There ain’t much credit in that,” when he succeeds at something in less than trying circumstances.  He is always looking to “come out very jolly” when suffering under the most egregious circumstances.   Pleasant Riderhood, a minor character in Our Mutual Friend, is pegged with the saying “I do not wish to regard myself, nor yet to be regarded in that bony light,” when she repeatedly rejects offers of marriage from Mr. Venus, a taxidermist.

In Hard Times, Dickens provided most of the main characters, the ones whom he portrayed in a negative light, with characteristic sayings that are double-entendres, and that point up the hypocrisy and/or the contradictions of the character’s actions.  These hypocrisies and contradictions move the plot along to its unhappy conclusion, but it is a conclusion that contains the seeds of better things that might come.

8. Double-dealing with Double-Entendres in Hard Times.

Mr. McChoakumchild: “Now, this school room is a Nation.  And in this nation, there are fifty millions of money.  Isn’t this a prosperous nation?”

Sissy Jupe: “I couldn’t know whether it was a prosperous nation or not, and whether it was in a thriving state or not, unless I knew who had got the money.”

Charles Dickens.  Hard Times.

Unlike Dickens’ other novels, Hard Times is a short book with a condensed plot that is bluntly carried forward by a duel of double-entendres.  The title itself is a double-entendre.  The adjective “Hard” in the title implies that the times are difficult.  It also implies that the times are materialistic, something you could bang your head against and get nothing but a headache.  At the same time, “Times” is a word for multiplication, and implies that what is difficult about the present era will multiply if things are left to go on as they are.  This is on its face a bleak message.  But there is another meaning to the words in the title.  The word “Times” also implies that what is difficult about the present era could pass, that it is only these times that are hard, and that better times may come.  The book’s title thereby encapsulates the meaning and moral of the story.  Things are bad, they might get worse, but they could get better.   And we will see how.

“Now what I want is Facts” are the well-known opening words of Hard Times.  They are spoken by Thomas Gradgrind, a retired businessman turned philanthropic schoolmaster.  Gradgrind is the central character in the novel, and the only major character who changes his ways and views in the course of the book.  He seemingly represents the audience of upper and middle class people whom Dickens hoped to address with his book, and whom he hoped would be changed in their views and ways.  In the course of the book, Gradgrind is tripped up by the double meaning of his mantra that “In this life, we want nothing but Facts,” but ends up falling morally forward.

The ostensible meaning of Gradgrind’s mantra is that the world is best understood, and actions are best undertaken, through science and through the factual evidence with which scientific truths are established.  He eschews fanciful stories and sentimental dreams of any sort as unprovable and unworkable.   He believes that hard facts are the basis of peace, prosperity and progress.  This is, on its face, a seemingly hopeful and humane message.  He is, after all, a philanthropist and he is contributing his time and money in an effort to improve the world.

But there is a less sanguine underside to Gradgrind’s mantra.  The underlying meaning is a materialistic ethic in which only things like money and material success are important.  This is a hardhearted ethic, and Gradgrind learns through hard times of his own the lesson that he needs more than just facts in his life.  By the end of the book, “Faith, hope and charity” have become his new mantra, and he is no longer idolizing Bounderby the wealthy capitalist or idealizing competitive capitalism.  He comes, instead, to appreciate the sentimentality and creativity of the compassionate community that is the circus.  This is Dickens’ message in the book.

Hard Times is generally considered a simple, and by some a simplistic, book.[11]  The names that Dickens gave his main characters bluntly broadcast his meanings.  Gradgrind is a person who sees life as a grind, and who grinds others down.  Bounderby is a bounder and a fraud.  Mr. M’Choakumchild is a teacher who stifles children with rote drills.  Stephen Blackpool is an ignorant worker for whom life is a dark mystery.  But the book is, in fact, more complex than appears at first sight.  Gradgrind is not the only one who is caught in the toils of a double-entendre, and the book is full of double meanings that come unraveled as the story unwinds.

Hard Times is peopled with characters who represent a range of the social types one would find in a mid-nineteenth century English industrial town.  Most of the major characters have a characteristic saying that is attributed to them, and which contains a double meaning.  Some of the sayings illustrate the hypocrisy of a character.  Others represent the ambivalence, internal contradictions, or confusions of a character.  The sayings reflect different attitudes toward self and society, but all focus the characters in on themselves, rendering them self-centered and isolated.  They are all caught in the vicious cycles of their double-entendres, unable to free themselves from prisons that are their selves, and unable to form common bonds of caring with others.  The book is an exploration of the moral and behavioral consequences of their sayings.

“I don’t forget that I am J.B. of Coketown” is the repeated refrain of Josiah Bounderby.  He is the resident Coketown capitalist, and the owner of the factory, the bank, and almost everything else in town.  Bounderby claims to be a self-made man who has worked his way up after having been abandoned as a child in the gutter.  He continually cites his supposedly lowly origins in what he claims is a show of humility.  Bounderby seems to exemplify the individual self-reliance coupled with humility that Mr. Gradgrind is trying to teach the students in his school.  Self-reliance coupled with humility were seen as highly positive virtues in nineteenth century England.

But Bounderby’s is a false humility because the underlying meaning of his refrain that “I don’t forget that I am J.B. of Coketown” is a boast that he is Coketown and that Coketown is his, as when the French King Louis XIV said “L’Etat est moi.”  Bounderby is also a fraud in that he has, in fact, been raised in a middle-class family, attended a first class school, and got a boost in life from a loving mother.  His greed and pride, on the one hand, but also his insecurity and desire to be accepted as a peer of the realm, on the other hand, are prime movers of the book’s plot.  In the end, Bounderby is exposed as a fraud and his social-climbing schemes are quashed.

“What does it matter?” is the mantra of Louisa Gradgrind, Mr. Gradgrind’s daughter and the prize graduate of his school.  On its face, her saying is an extension of her father’s focus on facts.  She is saying that matter is the measure of all things.  Tell her the material makeup of a thing, and she will tell you its value.  This is a principle that her father would praise and promote.  But the underside of this saying is nihilism, and a total indifference to anyone and anything.  In a materialistic world, she is saying, there is no value.  Nothing and no one matters.  Consistent with both meanings of her mantra, and much to Gradgrind’s satisfaction, Louisa marries Bounderby because he is wealthy, even though she despises him.  Later, she leaves Bounderby, and seemingly has an affair with a hard-up aristocrat who has been hired by Bounderby to help him get into high society and Parliament.  That her behavior is scandalous does not matter to her.

“What will be, will be” is the refrain of James Harthouse, the hard-up aristocrat.  The refrain reflects the cynicism of a person who has given up trying, probably before he even started.  Harthouse has sold himself to Bounderby, whom he considers beneath him, and he feels demeaned.  Fatalism is his excuse for his denigration.  I am what I am and I do what I do because of circumstances beyond my control, he seems to be saying.  And the saying is his excuse for irresponsible and reprehensible actions.  But there is also another side to this saying.  It implies that what you will, will be. That is, we are creatures with an ability to will, and we cannot, therefore, dodge responsibility for what it is that we will.  Harthouse has some heart, and seems by the end of the book to understand he has responsibility for what he does, but his response is merely to clear out.

“Everything is a muddle” is the constant complaint of Stephen Blackpool, a warm-hearted but heartily ignorant worker in Bounderby’s factory.  Blackpool is unable to choose with whom to make common cause.  He is torn between his awful wife and his wonderful girlfriend.  He is shunned by his fellow workers because he will not support their strike against Bounderby, but then fired by Bounderby because he will not denounce his fellow workers.  Unable to choose between his wife and his girl friend, hounded by both sides in the strike, and accused of a robbery he did not commit, Blackpool flees from Coketown, only to fall into an abandoned mine shaft (a black pool).  He is rescued from the pit, but dies from his injuries.

Most important, however, to the underlying message of the book, Blackpool’s rescue is successfully undertaken by a group of Coketowners and others who organize themselves into an efficient rescue operation.  The organizing is done spontaneously, but with due deference paid to those with relevant expertise and to those with relevant status in the community.  This seems to  exemplify the sort of community that the utopian socialists were promoting.  It combines compassion, cooperation and hierarchy in ways that resolve what seem to be contradictions and ambivalences in Dickens attitude toward ordinary folks and well-to-do people.

Dickens abhors rich people and aristocrats who exploit others and oppress the poor.  He also fears unruly mobs of poor people who may have good cause for their grievances, but whose ill-conceived and rash actions can cause more harm than good.  But Dickens subscribes to the utopian socialist ideal of a cooperative hierarchy and a hierarchical cooperative, with cooperation among the higher and lower social classes.[12]

He admires successful people like the Cheeryble brothers in Nicholas Nickleby and John Jaryndice in Bleak House because they treat their employees as colleagues, not as servants, and they use their wealth to help others make their own way.  But he esteems even more ordinary people who can organize themselves to do good, such as the rescue party in Hard Times, Mr. Pancks and his cohorts who rescue William Dorrit from debtors prison in Little Dorrit, and the patrons of the Six Jolly Fellowship Porters tavern who rescue and revive Rogue Riderhood in Our Mutual Friend.  In Little Dorrit, Dickens compares England to a sinking ship whose Captain goes ashore to pursue his own self-interest and leaves the crew to save the ship, which they do.

Two key characters in Hard Times articulate the compassionate philosophy of the utopians, and speak without getting caught up in double-entendres. And unlike the other main characters, they are neither isolated nor self-centered.  The first is Sissy Jupe, whose English is often garbled but whose moral sense is impeccable.  She is the moral center of the book, and often functions in the novel like the boy in the Hans Christian Andersen story who proclaims that the emperor has no clothes.  She repeatedly speaks truth to power.

The other character is Mr. Sleary, the owner and operator of a circus, who talks with a lisp and whose sentences are largely gibberish, but whose humane actions speak more clearly than any words.  His circus is an exemplar of the credos “From each according to his/her ability, to each according to his/her needs,” and “One for all and all for one.”  The circus is a cooperative venture in which everyone has a place, albeit with a hierarchy and Sleary at its head.  It is also a compassionate community which takes care of every member.[13]

Sissy’s father, Mr Jupe, was a performer in Sleary’s circus.  She was raised in the circus community, from which she seemingly learned her high moral values.  When Mr. Jupe began to lose his performance skills, he mistakenly thought that he would be fired, and that Sissy would end up homeless and penniless.  Mr. Jupe thought that Sissy would be better off being raised in a school such as Gradgrind’s.  So, he ran off and left Sissy behind to hopefully find a place with the Gradgrinds.  He seems to have missed the fact that the circus people have “an untiring readiness to help and pity one another,” and that when people at the circus can no longer perform, Sleary found them other work to do so that they could stay part of the circus family.

Sissy does find a place as a servant in the Gradgrind household, and as a student at the school.  She is soon indispensible in the home, but performs very poorly in the school.  She cannot fathom facts without some human and humane connection.  She begins, however, to perform moral magic on the Gradgrind family.  “There is a wisdom of the head, and …there is a wisdom of the heart,” Dickens writes.  Sissy may not have what we would call a high Intelligence Quotient, but she has a high Emotional Quotient.  By the end of the book, she has essentially become a teacher of applied ethics to the Gradgrind family, and Gradgrind learns his lesson about the importance of “Faith, hope, and charity.”

As the book ends, it is not clear, but it is possible that Gradgrind might open a new school dedicated to the sort of moral lessons that Sissy learned at the circus and that he learned from Sissy.  If so, it would be an instance of one compassionate community, the circus, spawning another compassionate community, Gradgrind’s new school, and it would exemplify the evolutionary process of social change envisioned by the utopian socialists.

9. Dickens’ Enduring Popularity: Conventional and Unconventional Views.

“We need to read Dickens’ novels because they tell us,

in the grandest way possible, why we are what we are.”

A high school student of Jon Michael Varese, 2009.

One of the most perplexing of cultural questions is why some writers are popular in their own time but not with posterity, while the popularity of other writers endures.  Charles Dickens was the most popular English language novelist of the nineteenth century and, despite writing thick books that seem as though they will never end, his works remain popular today.  Why?

The conventional view is that Dickens remains popular because his stories can be read as fairy tales that do not significantly challenge readers intellectually, emotionally or ethically.  He is said to have written kid stuff that also appeals to adults.  The stories feature highly imaginative and colorful characters, and a charmingly anthropomorphic portrait of natural phenomena and inanimate objects.  Everything is alive and playful.  His stories involve easy criticism of unjust Victorian social institutions that are long gone, and invoke easy moral judgments against the neglect of impoverished children.  They generally revolve around the enlightenment of some individual, a naif who matures or a hard heart that is softened.  And they resolve in happy endings, usually with some long suffering couple getting married.  The conventional view is that he was and is popular because he was and is conventional.  I don’t agree.

The thesis of this essay is that Dickens’ views of social change were quite unconventional, and that critics who claim he wrote Pollyannish books are wrong.  Despite the inevitable marriage at the end, Dickens’ books are dark, and they are full of unhappy endings for most of the characters that overshadow the happy nuptials for the few.   In turn, Dickens’ views of social change were much more complex and subtle than merely the hope that each of us might go through a Scrooge-like conversion experience.  With characters such as Little Nell and Little Dorrit, Dickens was obviously trying to play on the heart strings and evoke the better angels of his readers.  But Dickens was also trying to appeal in more subtle ways to his readers’ longings for compassionate communities.

Dickens struggled with the means and methods of making social change.  He opposed revolution because of its violence, destructiveness and unpredictability.  He supported reform but had difficulty with the question of how to make a new society out of people molded by the old one.[14]  In not one of his books does he describe the successful reform of any major institution.  Chancery in Bleak House, the Circumlocution Office in Little Dorrit, the criminal justice system in Great Expectations, the parish workhouse system in Our Mutual Friend, the orphanage system in Oliver Twist, the school system in Nicholas Nickleby, and many other unjust and dysfunctional institutions that are featured in Dickens’ books are left standing in the end despite the best efforts of his protagonists.[15]  Compassionate communities seemed to be his only hope.

That Dickens included examples of compassionate communities in his novels is, I think, a major reason for his enduring popularity.  William Thackeray, a contemporary of Dickens, wrote what is considered one of the greatest novels in English literature, Vanity Fair.  Like Dickens’ books, it is long and convoluted, and full of the most interesting characters and situations.  But it is thoroughly cynical and contains not one redeeming character or social configuration.  Thackeray justified the dourness of his book with his belief that most people were “abominably foolish and selfish,” and he had no real hope for humanity.  And his book is not often read any more.

As with Thackeray, one of the main themes in Dickens’ novels was the perfidious effects of selfishness and self-centeredness.  From the pretentiousness of Winkle the self-styled sportsman and Snodgrass the wannabe poet in The Pickwick Papers, to the self-centeredness of Young and Old Martin in Martin Chuzzlewit, to the self-delusions and pompousness of Pip in Great Expectations, the warping effects of self were a central concern of Dickens.  He repeatedly portrays the self as a prison or a form of bondage from which people often are unable to escape, although they may long to do so.  And while most of the characters in his books are unwilling or unable to break the chains of self, some do, and not only as heroic individuals, but as members of cooperative communities.  It is this hopefulness in the midst of hopelessness, the possibility of existing within an ugly and unjust society but not succumbing to be part of the ugliness and injustice, that makes Dickens’ novels so appealing.  And this was also the appeal of the utopian socialists — building a compassionate community within a heartless capitalism.

The idea of building cooperative communities that are in but not of the existing society, with the hope that they might become models for society, has a long history among the English and among Americans.  The Puritans, for example, came to America from England during the seventeenth century to build “a city on a hill,” which they hoped would be a model commuity that would be emulated by their comrades in England.  From that time to the present, America and England have been fertile grounds for utopian communities and other experimental cooperatives.  There were dozens at any given time in America during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.  During the twentieth century and twenty-first centuries, there have been hundreds of experimental communities and cooperatives in the United States at any time.  The hippie communes of the 1960’s were only the most highly publicized example of recent decades.  Communalism has deep roots in the American psyche.

It has been suggested that despite the ideological commitment of most Americans to self-centered individualism and competitive capitalism, most Americans are really socialists at heart.  Public opinion surveys over the last one hundred years have consistently shown that when Americans are asked ideologically tinged questions, such as do you support welfare payments or higher taxes, large majorities answer “No.”  Competitive capitalism and self-centered individualism get a vote of confidence.  But when people are asked empathetic questions, such as should the government feed hungry children, and would you be willing to pay higher taxes to fund public works, safeguard the environment, and guarantee a decent life to everyone, large majorities answer “Yes.”   They vote for a compassionate community.

I have some personal experience with this conflict between ideology and empathy.  I was a teacher of history and education for some twenty-five years.  I taught at some time or other each of the grade levels from middle school through graduate school, and students from all sorts of backgrounds.  In almost all of my classes, I began the school year by dividing students into groups of five each, and having them play a game in which they envisioned a utopian society.  The goal of the exercise was to reveal some of the values the students were bringing into the course, which would help in our discussions of history and teaching methods.  I oversaw this game hundreds of times.  Not one of the times did students suggest competitive capitalism as their ideal society.  In every case, students suggested some sort of cooperative society as their utopia.  Many of these same students identified themselves as conservatives, and espoused a free enterprise capitalist ideology.

It seems that most Americans have gone to Gradgrind’s elementary school, and have been drilled by Mr. McChoakumchild in the ideology and ethos of selfish individualism.  But it seems also that most have retained a capacity for empathy with others, and an underlying desire for cooperation and community.  One of the reasons that Dickens’ books remain popular is because they touch in a subtle way on the underlying aspirations of most people to escape the prison of their self and their selfish society, and be part of a compassionate cooperative community.  The books appeal to utopian socialists of the heart looking for a way to realize their hopes.  For those of us who wish for a more compassionate and cooperative society, the continued popularity of Dickens’ books is a hopeful sign.

 

[1] Williams, Raymond. Culture and Society, 1780-1950. New York: Harper & Row, 1958. pp.94-95.

[2] Johnson, Edgar. Charles Dickens: His Tragedy and Triumph. New York: Viking Press, 1977. p.413.

[3] Slater, Michael. Charles Dickens. New Haven, CN: Yale University Press, 2009. pp.370-371.  Teachout, Jeffrey. The Importance of Charles Dickens in Victorian Social Reform. Wichita State University, 2006. soar.wichita.edu p.38

[4] Ackroyd, Peter. Dickens. New York: Harper & Collins, 1990. p.684.

[5] Tomalin, Claire. Charles Dickens: A Life. New York: Penguin Press, 2011. pp.157, 249.

[6] Lichtheim, George. The Origins of Socialism. New York: Frederick A. Praeger, 1969.

[7] Gay, Peter. The Dilemma of Democratic Socialism. New York: Collier Books, 1962.

[8] Bestor, Arthur, Jr. Backwoods Utopias. Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1950.

[9] Ackroyd, Peter. Dickens. New York: Harper Collins, 1990. p.684.

[10] Teachout, Jeffrey. The Importance of Charles Dickens in Victorian Social Reform. Wichita State University, 2006. soar.wichita.edu  pp.56, 64.

[11] Tomalin, Claire. Charles Dickens: A Life. New York: Penguin Press, 2011. p.249.

[12] Slater, Michael. Charles Dickens. New Haven, CN: Yale University Press, 2009. p.367.

[13] Miller, J. Hillis. Charles Dickens: The World of His Novels. Bloomington: University of Indiana Press, 1958. p.220. Young, Lillian. “The Circus in Hard Times.” Trinity College Digital Repository. 4/1/2013. pp.10-11.

[14] Robert Douglass-Fairhurst. Becoming Dickens: The Invention of a Novelist. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2011. p.78.

[15] Hibbert, Christopher. Charles Dickens: The Making of a Literary Giant. New York: Macmillan Press,2009. p.301.

Strangers in an Estranged Land: A Reexamination of The Stranger and Review of The Meursault Investigation.

Strangers in an Estranged Land:

A Reexamination of The Stranger and Review of The Meursault Investigation.

Burton Weltman

Do not mistreat or oppress a stranger,

for you were strangers in Egypt.

Exodus 22:21

 

Dead Men Talking: Albert Camus’ Meursault and Kamel Daoud’s Musa.

“If the world were clear, art would not exist.”

Albert Camus. The Myth of Sisyphus.[1]

Does it matter if a literary work is widely misread in a way that is contrary to the intentions of its author and/or the plain meaning of the text?  It clearly matters if a legal text is misread.  The Second Amendment to the United States Constitution, for example, has recently been misread by a majority of the Justices on the United States Supreme Court to function as a guarantee of the right of people to keep guns in their homes and carry guns with them almost anywhere they want.  This is a misunderstanding of the intentions of the Second Amendment’s authors and a misreading of the plain language of the Amendment’s text that is so unreasonable and so contrary to the facts of the Amendment’s adoption as to be absurd.[2]  It is a misreading that has, however, contributed to the proliferation of guns and the epidemic of gun violence in the United States, and people are dying because of it.  It clearly matters.  But what about the misreading of a literary text?  Does that matter?

The premise of Kamel Daoud’s recent novel The Meursault Investigation[3] is that the misreading of a literary text does matter, and the narrator of Daoud’s book claims that Albert Camus’ novel The Stranger has almost invariably been misread for over seventy years since its publication in 1942.  The Stranger is the story of the murder of an Arab by a Frenchman in colonial Algeria.  The murderer’s name is Meursault and he is the narrator of the book.  Meursault has, much to his surprise, been found guilty of premeditated murder and sentenced to death for shooting the Arab.  He had assumed that he would be found guilty of the lesser offense of unpremeditated manslaughter or not guilty by reason of self-defense.  Although an appeal of his sentence is pending, Meursault tells his story while facing possible execution, and death envelops the book.  It opens with the death of Meursault’s mother, is punctuated by the Arab’s death, and closes with the prospect of Meursault’s death.  Meursault tells his story in deadpanned language, and portrays himself as an emotionally deadened person who has endured life in a chronically depressed state.

For many reviewers over the years, Meursault has been seen as the ideal of an honest and dispassionate man, and an existentialist or absurdist hero.[4]  This seems also to be the view of the general reading public, based on comments provided on popular websites that can be taken as reflecting mainstream public opinion.  These websites include Wikipedia (Meursault is “often cited as an exemplar of Camus’ philosophy of the absurd and existentialism.”)[5] and Sparknotes (Meursault represents “Camus’ philosophical notion of absurdity.”).[6]  Amazon reports that The Stranger remains a best seller to the present day, as it is “a staple of U.S. high school literature courses.”[7]  It is, thus, a widely read and potentially influential book.

The narrator of The Meursault Investigation is an old man named Harun who seeks to dispel Meursault’s heroic image.  His argument is based on a critical rereading of The Stranger, and on providing a side-story to Meursault’s narrative, as well as a sequel to the events in the book up to the present day.  Harun is ostensibly the brother of the Arab murdered by Meursault, and he claims to speak for his dead brother.  Harun complains that decades of readers have failed to react to the fact that his brother (whose name is Musa) is not even named in The Stranger (he is merely called “the Arab”) and that nothing is told in the book about Musa or his family.

Since no one has previously spoken for Musa, Harun claims that readers have missed the underlying meaning of the events in The Stranger.  Only Meursault’s side of the story has been told, and Musa’s death has been seen only in the light of Meursault’s brilliant portrayal of his own pathetic life.  As a result, Harun argues, Meursault has effectively gotten away with murder in the public mind, and Meursault’s account of the killing has both trivialized murder and perpetuated racist views of Arab Algerians.  Although the story dates from 1942, Harun contends that people are still dying today because of the attitudes toward murder and toward Algerians presented by Meursault in the book.  In Harun’s mind, the public’s misunderstanding of the story clearly matters.

History is full of dead men talking, and the meaning of what they said and did is often important to us.  They help us to figure out who we are and what we ought to do.  That is why historians and Supreme Court Justices continually review and revise what they think the Founders meant to say in the Constitution.  The thesis of Daoud’s book is that it is also important to set the record straight as to the meaning and message of fictional dead men.  Fiction can influence people as fully as facts can.  There are, for example, lots of young people today who cite the wisdom of Professor Dumbledore from the Harry Potter books as though he is a real person.  Daoud has provided us with the novel case of a fictional character calling out another fictional character in order to get a fictional situation right.

Getting things right in a work of fiction is not, however, always easy.  It has been said that great books are those that can be reread over and over again with the reader getting something different each time.[8]  Great books, such as The Stranger, can legitimately be interpreted many different ways.  The same can be said for the United States Constitution.  One of the things that makes the Constitution great is that it is a living document that can be interpreted in different ways as circumstances change.  However, there are some interpretations of the Constitution that are just plain wrong, such as the Supreme Court’s recent ruling on the Second Amendment.  Similarly, there are some interpretations of a novel that are just wrong, and they can have consequences.

Both The Stranger and The Meursault Investigation are written with first-person narrators. Interpretation is particularly tricky with first-person narration because it raises hard questions about to what extent and in what ways does and does not the narrator speak for the author.  It also raises questions as to the reliability of the narrator.   Conflating a first-person narrator with a book’s author, or assuming that the narrator is reliable, can lead to misunderstanding of a book.  In the cases of The Stranger and The Meursault Investigation, this problem has been exacerbated by the tendency of reviewers to focus on what they see as Camus’ philosophical views and Daoud’s social and religious views, and to ignore the psychological nuances and character development of the narrators in the course of the books.  The result is often a misunderstanding of both the authors’ views and the narrators’ characters.

It is my contention that neither Meursault nor Harun has been intended by their creators as a hero or a role model, and that neither of them can be taken as either reliable narrators or spokespersons for their authors.  Meursault’s narrative is essentially an exercise in what existentialists call “bad faith.”[9]  Jean Paul Sartre, the existentialist-in-chief, described bad faith as dodging responsibility for the effects of one’s choices.  He claimed that one has to realize that when one chooses to do or not do something, one is choosing not only what one wants to be oneself, but also “choosing at the same time what humanity as a whole should be.”  People act in bad faith when they “believe their actions involve no one but themselves.”  For Sartre, “any man who takes refuge behind his passions, any man who fabricates some deterministic theory, is operating in bad faith.”[10]

Meursault fits this description.  He does not take responsibility for his actions or for the way his actions affect others, and he seeks to explain away the harms he has done to others.  The book begins with the excuse he gave when he asked his boss for time off to go to his mother’s funeral (“Sorry, sir, but it’s not my fault, you know”), and ends with him giving himself absolution for his actions (“I’d been right, I was still right, I was always right.”).[11]  His narrative is a sustained attempt to exonerate himself for his actions.

Harun’s story is essentially a guilt trip.  It is at first an attempt to avoid guilt, then a reluctant admission of guilt and, finally, an attempt to purge himself of guilt.  It is a circuitous narrative that starts with his blaming Meursault and the world at large for the death and indignity suffered by his brother, and the hardships suffered by him and his mother.  It ends with a confession and a mea culpa for committing the murder of a Frenchman.  He begins his story by distinguishing himself from Meurault and ends by identifying with him.  They are, he acknowledges, blood brothers under the skin.[12]

Harun is an alcoholic, a self-described blowhard, and a murderer.  He is no hero and he is not Daoud.  The consequences of misreading Daoud’s book have, however, been frightening.  As a result of things that Huran says about religion, a death sentence fatwa has been issued against Daoud by a radical Muslim cleric in Algeria.  Daoud has responded that “It was a fictional character in the novel who said those things, not me,” but to no avail thus far.[13]

The thesis of the present essay is that The Stranger has been widely misread and that The Meursault Investigation seems in danger of being similarly misunderstood.  With respect to The Stranger, I think that reviewers and readers often miss that Meursault is relating and reconstructing past events, not telling about things as they happen.  They also miss that Meursault is telling his story in the immediate aftermath of being condemned to death.  They mistakenly think that Meursault is speaking for Camus.  And, they mistakenly think that Meurault represents the absurd man that Camus promoted in his book The Myth of Sisyphus.

Critics often extol the at-best amoral Meursault as some kind of existentialist hero or romantic anti-hero.  This sort of misreading demeans the work of Camus who was, above all else, a passionate moralist.  In conflating Meursault with Camus, these critics have missed what seems to be Camus’ intent that readers empathize with Meursault and see something of themselves in him, even as they hopefully disagree with him and reject his behavior.  These critics effectively undermine the moral value of the book.

With respect to The Meursault Investigation, I think that reviewers are in danger of mistakenly treating Harun as a hero, a reliable narrator, and a spokesman for Daoud.  These mistakes would diminish the social and political meaning of the work.  And that matters.

Meursault in the Face of Death: The Stages of Grief.

We live “as man condemned to death.”

Albert Camus. The Myth of Sisyphus[14]

“Aujourd’hui, maman est morte.”  These are the opening words of The Stranger.  They are generally translated as mother or mama died today.  The words seem to situate the narrator, Meursault, in the present, as though he is learning of his mother’s death at the time he is telling us about it.  The rest of that paragraph and the next also give the appearance that the narrator is describing what he is currently experiencing.  But then the narrative abruptly turns into what is clearly a description of the past, of thoughts, feelings, and events the narrator has previously experienced, and the narrative continues that way for the rest of the book.

Camus wrote The Stranger in the present perfect tense in which “etre” is added to the past participle of a verb in French, just as “have” is added to the past participle in English.[15]  The effect of using that tense is to produce the feeling of an indefinite past, as though the past continues into the present.  This seems to be part of what Camus is proposing in the book, that one cannot escape the past or responsibility for one’s actions.

Meursault’s story opens with a description of his mother’s death and her funeral.  These events are the alpha and omega of his story.  The facts he relates include that his mother died in a nursing home to which she had been sent by Meursault over her strenuous objections, and that he wandered about at her funeral without showing any interest or emotion.  The overwhelming importance of these facts to Meursault stems from his contention that the way he treated his mother and behaved at her funeral were the main reason he was convicted of first degree capital murder.

Meursault repeatedly complains that his murder trial seemed to be more about disparaging his character over the way he treated his mother and her death than about ferreting out the facts of the shooting.[16]  The prosecutor repeatedly railed against Meursault, insisting he was “morally guilty of his mother’s death,” and was “an inhuman monster wholly without a moral sense.”  The court was seemingly more concerned with Meursault’s mother’s death than with the Arab’s, and Meursault was apparently convicted of the premeditated murder of the Arab because he was found to have behaved badly toward his mother.[17]

Camus once facetiously said that the moral of The Stranger was that “In our society any man who does not weep at his mother’s funeral runs the risk of being sentenced to death.”[18]  And Camus’ narrator, Meursault, tries to use the absurdity of his trial to portray himself as the victim in his case.  Camus was not, however, justifying Meursault’s actions or criticizing Meursault’s conviction for murder.  Camus was criticizing a society that seemed more concerned with enforcing social conventions than with enforcing laws against murder, especially when the victims were Arabs.  And he was asking us to identify with Meursault, despite our objections to Meursault’s behavior.

Opinions of Meursault’s state of mind as a narrator, and as a character in his own story, have been varied over the years.  To some reviewers, he is the soul of objectivity[19], sensitivity,[20] and honesty.[21]  To others, he is “a clinical psychopath,”[22] who “cares about practically nothing.”[23]  But one thing these reviewers have had in common is that they treat Meursault as a reliable narrator and take his version of events on face value.  This is not plausible and does not seem to have been intended by Camus for at least two reasons.

First, Meursault is still in the process of appealing his death sentence as he is narrating his story.  He has a life-and-death interest in making himself look as sympathetic as possible.  We have to see his story as potentially self-serving, and as not necessarily reflecting events as they actually happened.  Camus portrays Meursault as an ingenious fellow, and Meursault tells what seems to be a tale designed to gain our sympathy and minimize our antipathy.  For example, he leaves out any account of what happened in the immediate aftermath of the shooting.[24]  The artfulness of his narrative is emphasized in The Meursault Investigation by Harun, who insists that Meursault’s story is a fiction designed to justify himself to posterity.[25]

Meursault comes across as a distressed person.  He repeatedly describes himself to the people around him, and portrays himself to us readers, as a person without deep emotions.  Most commentators take it for granted that Meursault was, in fact, that kind of person.  But we cannot take Meursault’s portrayal of himself as being the way he always was.  He may have been rendered emotionally numb by his recent experiences and his narrative may reflect that effect, or he may be dissembling for sympathy.

Second, Meursault had just been sentenced to death when he begins telling his story.  This is a key to his psychological state and his character development as he goes on.  His deadened picture of himself could be a result of shock.  He is seemingly in a state of shock as he begins the story, and his anxiety level increases toward the end as his execution date approaches.  As a result of his emotional wavering, Meursault’s story does not come out as well as he would have liked it.  He does not make his best case for himself, either for his appeal or for posterity.  This is seemingly part of the story that Camus is telling us, through Meursault, about humans facing death.

Most reviewers treat Meursault’s narrative as being of a piece and his narrative tone as being uniform throughout.  This does not do justice to the psychological subtlety and complexity of Camus’ book.  The Stranger was Camus’ first published novel.  In his other works of fiction, the characters tend to be one-dimensional representatives of philosophical or social positions rather than complex persons. That is not the case with Meursault.   He is a complex character who morphs in the course of his tale.

Meursault’s narrative, in fact, seems to unroll in stages, almost like what have been described as the five stages of grief.[26]  He has just been told he is going to die, and his story seems to proceed from denial, which is ostensibly the first stage of grief, then to the next stages of anger, bargaining, depression and, finally, acceptance.  This is not to say that the book can be explained by some psychological formula, but that analyzing it in those terms can help illustrate the changes in Meursault’s narrative tone as he tells his story.

In the first stage of his story, Meursault essentially portrays himself as a victim of circumstances.  His mantra in this phase is “it’s not my fault.”[27]  He repeats this sentiment throughout the scenes of his mother’s funeral, which go on for many pages.  In a foreshadowing of his complaint about his trial, he complains that people at the funeral kept looking at him askance because he did not exhibit any emotion.  “I had an absurd impression,” he says, “that they had come to sit in judgment of me.”[28]  Meursault’s affect at this point is that of a pathetic person in a state of denial.

In the second part of his story and the second stage of grief, Meursault portrays himself as just an ordinary fellow who goes along to get along, and who follows the path of least resistance as he claims most people do.  He describes his relationships with his neighbors, his friend Raymond, and his girlfriend Marie in this segment.  Raymond is a pimp who beats up his Arab girlfriend, and who repeatedly says that he wants to be “pals” with Meursault.  Meursault claims that he does not know what that means.  But he hangs around with Raymond and helps him in his schemes, which eventually leads to Meursault shooting the Arab.  Meursault also repeatedly tells his girlfriend, Marie, that he does not love her, that the word love “had no meaning” for him.  But he also tells her that if she wants to marry him, “I didn’t mind.”[29]  The affect in this part of the story is defensive, as of a person who is upset at being picked on and just doesn’t want to be bothered.

It is at the close of this segment that Meursault commits the murder.  He, Raymond, and Marie are at the beach when they came upon “the Arab” and another Algerian Arab.  Meursault believed that the Arab was the brother of the girlfriend who Raymond had assaulted, and that the Arab had a knife and might be out for revenge.  Meursault was holding Raymond’s gun.  Meursault claims he was overpowered by the heat and confused by the glare of the sun so that, standing there with Raymond’s gun in his hand, “it crossed my mind that one might fire, or not fire – and it would come to absolutely the same thing.”  He had seemingly lost his sense of reality and self-control.  Later, when he shoots the Arab, he describes holding the gun in his hand and then “The trigger gave,” as though the shot just happened and he was not responsible for it.[30]  His attitude toward the murder is completely passive, a “things just happen” tone.  It is as though in describing the event, he is either still in a state of shock or he is trying to avoid responsibility for his action.

In the next stage of the story, Meursault describes the police interrogation and the trial, and the failure of his attempts to work things out with the authorities.  He begins to sound persecuted and even paranoid.  It is not only that the police and the prosecutor keep describing him as “callous” and “inhuman,”[31] but that “there seemed to be a conspiracy to exclude me from the proceedings.”  The lawyers, court officials, reporters, and spectators all seemed to know each other, and fraternized as though they were members of a club that excluded him.  He felt like “a gate crasher.”  He wanted to tell them that “I was just like everybody else, quite an ordinary person,” but they would not listen to him.  He says that he realized then “how all these people loathed me,” and were out to get him.[32]

Following the verdict and sentencing ,Meursault describes going into a state of anxiety and depression.  He is desperate to find a way out of being executed.  He says that to find “a loophole [in the law] obsesses me.”  Although he still has an appeal pending, and repeatedly expresses hope that the appeal will be successful, his tone is increasingly agitated.  He is assured by a visiting priest that “my appeal would succeed,” but he is, nonetheless, admittedly possessed by fear, and he goes into a rage at the priest when the priest suggests that he repent.[33]

Finally, on the last page of the book, Meursault says he has become “emptied of hope” and that “for the first time, the first, I laid my heart open to the tendre indifference of the universe.”[34]  This statement is generally taken by reviewers to mean that he has come to accept his fate and has realized the absurdity of life.  But, of course, he still has at this point an appeal of his sentence in the works, so it is not clear that he has really given up hope.  In addition, the French word tendre can be translated as “benign” or “tender.”  In using the word tendre to describe the universe, Meursault has essentially contradicted the idea that the universe is indifferent or that he has given up hope.  A benign or tender indifference is not indifferent.  It is sympathetic, caring, and agreeable.  The universe will, he seems still to hope, help him.

In sum, Meursault is a cunning but not entirely consistent apologist for himself.  My purpose in analyzing The Stranger in this way is not to reduce Camus’ complex novel to a series of formulaic stages.  It is merely to demonstrate that the emotional tone of Meursault’s story evolves as he narrates it, and that the narrator is not to be taken as totally reliable.  It is also the case that he is not a spokesperson for Camus nor is he intended as an existential hero.

Meursault and the Myth of Sisyphus: Apathy versus Absurdity.

“To an absurd mind reason is useless and there is nothing beyond reason.”

Albert Camus. The Myth of Sisyphus.[35]

Meursault has been seen by most commentators as a spokesman for Camus, and as an ideal exemplar of the absurd person that Camus promotes in his philosophical work The Myth of Sisyphus. They see The Stranger and The Myth of Sisyphus, which were both published in 1942, as companion pieces, with Meursault representing Camus’ philosophy of absurdism.  Some of these commentators admire Camus’ philosophy and extend this admiration to Meursault as its exemplar.[36]  Others are appalled by what they see as Meursault’s callous and inhuman behavior, and extend this negative opinion to Camus’ philosophy.  Some have even accused Camus of racism based on Meursault’s attitude toward “the Arab” he has killed.[37]

Conflating Meursault with Camus and The Stranger with The Myth of Sisyphus began with an influential review of The Stranger in the mid-1940’s by Camus’ then friend Jean Paul Sartre.  Sartre, who was already a famous philosopher and novelist, gave the neophyte Camus and The Stranger a strangely ambivalent review.  In the review, Sartre repeatedly insists that The Stranger is a fictional rendering of the philosophy in The Myth of Sisyphus, with the message that life is absurd.  Along the way, he also comments that Camus “seems to pride himself on quoting” philosophers in The Myth of Sisyphus “whom he seems not to have always understood.”   And he says that Camus’ methods of writing can be best compared to those of Charles Maurras, who was a notorious anti-Semite and fascist.  Sartre concludes that The Stranger, as a novel about absurdity, “aims at being magnificently sterile,” and succeeds.  With friends like this… [38]

The problem with all of these opinions, from that of Sartre on down to the present, is that The Stranger and The Myth of Sisyphus do not function as companion pieces.  They deal with very different issues.  The Myth of Sisyphus opens with the declaration that “There is but one truly serious philosophical problem, and that is suicide.”[39]  The book is, thereafter, a sustained argument that although life is absurd, it is for that very reason worth living.  Life and living with others are all that we have for sure, so we ought to hang onto them.  The Stranger is not a novel about suicide.  It is about murder.  It deals with the reaction of a character to having committed a murder and to his impending execution.  In any case, Meursault is in no way an exemplar of Camus’ philosophy in The Myth of Sisyphus.  To the contrary, he is better seen as a negative foil to Camus’ ideal of the absurd person.

In The Myth of Sisyphus, Camus describes and prescribes a philosophy of absurdity.  Absurdity is a “feeling of strangeness in the world” that results from the contradiction between our attempts to find transcendent meaning in the universe and our inevitable failure to do so.  The absurd person recognizes that “I don’t know whether this world has a meaning that transcends it.  But I know that I do not know that meaning and that it is impossible for me just now to know it.”  As a result, the absurd person tries “to live without appeal” to any higher authority, which includes God, the gods, or any metaphysical concepts, and to live without hope for life after death.[40]  This is not an easy thing to do.

Absurdity, according to Camus, is not a stable or secure position.  We are forced to live in a state of “permanent revolution” against ourselves because what we can rationally establish as truth conflicts with what we feel ought to be the case.  We are perpetually caught up in a contradiction between the inescapable conclusion that we cannot reasonably find any final answers, and our incorrigible feeling that they must exist.  “There is so much stubborn hope in the human heart,” Camus warns, “that hope cannot be eluded forever and that it can beset even those who wanted to be free of it.”  He concludes that “Absurdity, hope and death carry on their dialogue” in the mind of an absurd person, all of which makes for an impossible situation, but it is one the absurd person has to live with.[41]

The absurd person is best exemplified for Camus by the mythological figure of Sisyphus.  Sisyphus is variously portrayed in ancient Greek mythology as a villain and a hero, but all accounts agree that he was the craftiest of mortals, and that he frequently defied and outwitted the gods.  At one point, he even succeeded in enchaining Hades, the god of death, and thereby put a halt to humans dying.  Sisyphus was eventually defeated by Zeus, so that Hades was able to go back to work, and he was sentenced by the gods to eternally push a rock up a hill, only to have it fall back again so that he would have to push it up again.

Camus presents Sisyphus’ situation as a metaphor for the human condition.  We are all engaged in what seems like pointless activity.  But, Camus claims, Sisyphus does not despair.  Having defied the gods and rebelled against death on behalf of humankind, Sisyphus is actually happy in his perpetual toil.  In “his scorn of the gods, his hatred of death, and his passion for life,” Sisyphus epitomizes “the absurd hero.”  He is physically chained but metaphysically free.  And even as Sisyphus knows that the rock will roll back down each time he gets it to the top of the hill, he can feel that maybe this time it won’t.[42]

The Myth of Sisyphus opens with the question of whether suicide is warranted given the opacity of the universe.  Camus’ answer is an emphatic “No.”  An absurd person does not despair of his/her hopeless condition but, instead, revels in “my revolt, my freedom, and my passion” for life.  This is a passion that must includes others.  People, says Camus, have to make their own meaning in life, and that is a social and collective activity.  In an absurd world, he insists, there is one value that is certain and that is the value of “human relations,” “friendship,” and “fraternity.”  The isolated individual is an idiot and the isolated life is without value.  Meaning comes from solidarity.  We live with and for others, so that whatever the universe is, we are all in it and in for it together.[43]

Critics who portray Meursault as some sort of existentialist hero extol what they see as his honesty in admitting his indifference to the deaths of his mother and the Arab.  This, they contend, makes him a forthright nonconformist. [44]  They also admire what they claim is his sensitivity to those around him.  He does not deliberately offend anyone, with the exception of the dead Arab.[45]  And they commend his “emotional detachment” from the awful things he has experienced in his life.  He is in their eyes a genuine Stoic. [46]  In sum, they see his life story as a “tragedy of integrity” and a “tragedy of the ethical,” a man who was vilified at trial and convicted of murder because he failed to proclaim grief for his dead mother or love for his girl friend.[47]  Camus himself apparently once said that Meursault was condemned because “he does not play the game,” “refuses to lie,” and “agrees to die for the truth.”[48]  But none of these things make Meursault either an existentialist or an absurdist, let alone a hero.

Existentialism has been described as the doctrine that existence precedes essence, and that we are what we are not and are not what we are.  That is, it is a philosophy of becoming and change in which people are seen as having continually to go beyond themselves and make choices as to what they become next.  Existentialism insists that we must take responsibility for who we are and what we do.[49]  Given this description, Meursault is clearly not an existentialist because he continuously refuses to take responsibility for his actions, and particularly eschews responsibility for shooting the Arab.  He repeatedly describes his life as something that just came to pass, and describes the shooting as though the gun just went off almost by itself.  He also insists that he has always been the same, has never changed, and has rarely made a deliberate choice.

Meurault is also not an absurdist as Camus describes that doctrine.  Absurdism requires a person to be constantly at war with himself, looking for where and how he is starting to believe in transcendent ideas, and then rejecting them.  The absurd person has to be vigilantly self-reflective, watching what he/she thinks and feels, continually engaging in a vigorous  internal dialogue.  Meursault, to the contrary, is completely and admittedly unreflective.[50]  He is a creature of impulse, which is epitomized by his shooting of the Arab.

Some readers have mistaken Meursault’s complete absorption in the present as a sign of his existentialist and absurdist leanings.  But his self-absorption is merely a sign of selfishness and self-centeredness, which are contrary to the emphases of both existentialism and absurdism on our need to work with others to define and develop ourselves.  Significantly, Meursault is capable of sympathizing with others — he even feels sorry sometimes for his neighbor’s annoying dog — but he is incapable of empathizing with them.  He is emotionally and intellectually isolated, from others and even from himself.

Some readers have also mistaken Meursault’s unconventionality with Camus’ absurdity, but Meursault represents the apathetic person rather than the absurd person.   As he describes his life, what looks like nonconformity is really just indifference.  Deliberate rebellion is foreign to Meursault’s personality, as is passion.  He repeatedly tells his girlfriend that he does not know what love means, and he repeatedly says about choices he has to make, including the choice to shoot the Arab, that it makes no difference what he does.  The passion for life, the feeling of solidarity with others, and the revolt against injustice that characterize Camus’ absurd person are not sentiments that one could plausibly ascribe to Meursault.

Finally, while Camus emphasizes that the absurd person is energized in the face of death, defying its inevitability and gaining from it a passion for life, Meursault is depressed by his impending death and his narrative is a depressing tale told in a depressed voice.  In sum, Meursault is the opposite of the absurd person Camus is describing in The Myth of Sisyphus.

Meursault and Murder: A Rebel without a Cause.

“I rebel – therefore we exist.”

Albert Camus: The Rebel.[51]

Camus’ next philosophical book after The Myth of Sisyphus was The Rebel, which was published in 1951.  It is an essay on “whether or why we have the right to kill.”  Camus says that the book extends to a consideration of murder the “train of thought which began with suicide and the absurd” in The Myth of Sisyphus.[52]  If one must not kill oneself, may one kill others?  Reviewers have generally construed The Rebel in light of the breakup of the political alliance and friendship between Sartre and Camus over the former’s support for revolutionary Communism and the latter’s support for reformist socialism.[53]

Camus argues that revolution, which tries to impose all at once a final regime of justice on society, inevitably leads to oppression and murder.  Only a reformist movement that recognizes limits on what it can do can move toward genuine social justice.  The anti-revolutionary position Camus takes in The Rebel is generally seen as a function of the end of alliances between socialists and Communists that formed during World War II and that broke up with the beginning of the Cold War.

But there is also a continuity in Camus’ thinking that goes back to the composition of The Stranger during World War  IIMost reviewers, having already taken for granted that The Stranger is a companion piece to The Myth of Sisyphus, have not made a connection between The Rebel and The Stranger.  But The Myth of Sisyphus is a book about suicide.  The Rebel and The Stranger are both books about murder.  In this light, The Stranger can be best seen as a fictional prologue to Camus’ philosophical speculations in The Rebel, not as a companion piece to The Myth of Sisyphus.  And in light of the precepts promoted by Camus in The Rebel, Meursault comes across as a negative foil to the ideal rebel.

Camus reiterates in The Rebel many key concepts from The Myth of Sisyphus.  He insists that absurdism means that “human life is the only necessary good” and that, therefore, murder, which like suicide destroys life, is wrong.  Murder splits the soul in two, which is a good description of Meursault in The Stranger, a person living a half-life.  Camus acknowledges that “The absurd is, in itself, contradictory” because it denies value judgments but judges life to be of value, which is a value judgment.  Absurdism is a prescription for contradiction because it requires us to continually rebel against beliefs that we inevitably fall into.  But these contradictions are life-giving, Camus contends, because stagnation is death.  Rebellion, which is a “protest against death” and which was Sisyphus’ crime and his glory, is life.[54]    

Camus also insists in The Rebel, as he did in The Myth of Sisyphus, that humans are social creatures, not isolated individuals, and that “Human solidarity is metaphysical,” not merely conventional.  The person who does not engage in collective activity, either rebelling against  social oppression or in favor of greater social justice, is a stranger to humanity and foreigner in the world.  The stranger is the self-imposed outcaste who does not recognize that “dignity is common to all men,” or acknowledge the ultimate truth that “I rebel – therefore we exist.”[55]  That is, Camus concludes, we only truly exist to the extent we engage in collective rebellion.

Meursault seems to think of himself as a rebel, and many critics have thought likewise, because he does not conform to social conventionalities.  But he is an unrepentant murderer who does not stand for anything or with anybody.  He has no cause to which he is dedicated.  He is merely an isolated individual, who is strange to others and strange to himself.  In Camus’ terms, a person like Meursault is not a rebel and has only a form of half-life.

Brothers in Blood: Meursault and Harun.

Who is the Stranger of the two?

“The absurdity of my condition, which consisted in pushing a corpse to the top of a hill before it rolled back down again, endlessly.”

Harun, the narrator of The Meursault Investigation.[56]

The words L’Etranger, the French title of Camus’ novel, can be translated as the stranger, the outsider or the foreigner.  It is usually translated as The Stranger and most commentators see Meursault as the stranger.  He is a man estranged from himself and society.  But, the Arab he kills is also a stranger and a foreigner to Meursault, just as the Frenchman Meursault is a stranger and foreigner to the Arab.  So, who is the stranger?  Who is the foreigner?

That is a question that Huran, the narrator of Daoud’s novel The Meursault Investigation, repeatedly asks.  Both the French and the Arabs saw themselves as the genuine Algerians.  Each claimed the land was rightfully theirs, and saw the others as foreigners.  They also knew little about each other and were effectively strangers to each other in the same land.  With the independence of Algeria from France, Harun contends, this did not change.  “Independence only pushed people on both sides to switch roles,” with the oppressed becoming the oppressors and the oppressors becoming the oppressed.[57]

Harun tells his tale over the course of several days to an auditor in an Algerian bar.  He claims to be telling the story of his brother, Musa, and, thereby, reclaiming Musa’s dignity and the dignity of Arab Algerians as a whole.  His story is replete with critical comments about the French colonial regime and the current Algerian government and society.  He is himself an outsider or stranger to contemporary Algerian society.  Harun is particularly critical of the conservative Islam that has increasingly been dominating Algerian culture.  It is these latter comments that have sparked the enmity of conservative Muslims toward Daoud, as though Harun is speaking for Daoud.  Although Harun makes comments about society and religion with which apparently Daoud agrees, Harun is too unreliable and erratic a narrator to be considered Daoud’s spokesman.  He tends to discredit himself.

Harun’s narrative is more of a rant than a story, and the facts come out in dribs and drabs with lots of inconsistencies.  Ostensibly correcting Meursault’s narrative with the story of his brother, Harun’s narrative is actually a winding, whining, long-winded complaint about his own life.  His father abandoned the family when Harun was a small child.  Harun’s mother then favored Musa and neglected Harun.  When Musa was killed, Harun’s mother was inconsolable and, according to Harun, thereafter made him feel like she wished he had died rather than Musa.  Harun idolized his brother, but also feared him.  Musa seems to have been a bit of a brute who mistreated Harun.  Harun actually knows very little about Musa’s life except what his mother told him, and she was an unreliable narrator who constantly changed her stories and magnified Musa’s achievements.  She also was obsessed with getting revenge for Musa’s murder, and put the burden on Harun to achieve that.  In sum, he portrays his mother as a monster who has pushed him around all his life.

When the revolution of Arab Algerians against the French began, Harun did not join the rebels, and was subsequently scorned by his neighbors for being an outsider to their liberation struggle.  In the immediate aftermath of the revolution, at his mother’s instigation, Harun shoots and kills a Frenchman who was seeking sanctuary in their shed.  This man was a member of a neighboring family that had previously gotten Harun a place in a French school at which Harun gained the education that enabled him to get a good government job.  It is not clear exactly what was the relationship between the dead man and Huran’s mother, but the man may even have had some sort of sexual relationship with Harun’s mother.[58]  Harun was arrested by the new Algerian government for shooting the man, but was released and, as he puts it, was condemned to live rather than condemned to die as Meursault had been.  Harun seems incapable of having close relationships with anyone.  He is a very old man but in his long life he has had one girlfriend for one summer, and then she left him.

Although some reviewers have rushed to crown Harun as “an existential hero”[59] or the ideal of an honest man,[60] and others have proclaimed him a liberal social reformer,[61] Harun does not present himself as a social reformer.  Although he continually complains about the way Algeria was under the French and the way it is now, he has never done anything to change things.  One reviewer has aptly called him “a barroom kvetcher.”[62]  Like Meursault, he has been wandering through life without purpose, seemingly looking after only himself.  He is no hero and he is not Daoud.

Harun parades his alienation from society.  He is an atheist and an alcoholic in a deeply religious and abstemious society.  “I detest religions and submission,” he declaims.[63]  He is a stranger in an estranged land.  But he is no existentialist.  Like Meursault, Harun refuses to take responsibility for his actions, blaming everything on his mother, the French, his Arab neighbors, and circumstances out of his control.  With respect to the murder, he says “I blame my mother, I lay the blame on her.  The truth is, she committed that crime.”[64]

The underlying theme of the book is Harun’s feelings of guilt, which he seemingly tries to pass on to his auditor in the book and to readers of the book.  Like The Stranger, The Meursault Investigation is divided into two parts.  The Stranger is formally divided into two parts, punctuated by the murder of the Arab.  The Meursault Investigation is informally divided into two parts, with Harun’s admission that he murdered the Frenchman as the dividing point.  In the first part, Harun focuses on the murder of Musa and on his own survivor’s guilt.  In the second part, he focuses on his murder of the Frenchman and his efforts to deal with his feelings of guilt about that.

Harun’s diatribe has the superficial appearance of spontaneity, but seems really to be orchestrated.  He releases information in drips and in ways that seem calculated for maximum shock to the auditor, but also for maximum sympathy.  His is a strategy of ostensibly admitting the worst about himself as a way of pretending he is being honest, but he is really being manipulative.   When, for example, Harun finally admits his murder of the Frenchman, he at first claims that he did not know the man.  Eventually, however, he admits that he did know the man and, in fact, knew him well.  Harun first gets his audience used to the fact that he killed someone, and then gradually lets us know how awful his act really was.

Harun is an admittedly unreliable narrator.  At the close of the book, he even hints that he may be “just a compulsive liar.”[65]  In discussing The Stranger, for example, he talks at one point about “when the murderer leaves prison,” as though Meursault got the reprieve he had been seeking and was not executed.  But later in talking about Meursault, Harun refers to “after his execution,” as though Meursault had been executed.[66]  Harun also claims that this is the first time he has ever told his story, but he seems to be such a compulsive talker that this is hard to believe.

Harun’s story is laced with references to The Stranger, The Myth of Sisyphus and, significantly, The Rebel, and the word “absurd” abounds throughout.  I think the main point of Harun’s story is proclaimed midway through the book when he paraphrases the theme of The Rebel, saying that “whether or not to commit murder is the only proper question for a philosopher.”[67]  That is, when faced with the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, do we have the right to murder our way out of our troubles?  And I think that Harun’s answer is “No, because you can never live it down.”

Harun illustrates this in a paraphrase of an image from The Myth of Sisyphus, when he compares his situation to “pushing a corpse to the top of a hill before it rolled back down, endlessly.”[68]  Instead of the rock that Sisyphus had to push around, Harun has to deal with guilt for two corpses, those of his brother and the Frenchman.  He seems to need to tell his story as a way of relieving himself of his guilt feelings, and thereby getting the corpses to the top of the hill.  But the guilt feelings will inevitably return again, the corpses rolling back down upon him, so that he probably has been compulsively telling his story over and over again all his adult life.  The story ends with an almost complete identification of the murderer Harun with the murderer Meusault, and the last pages of the book consist of Harun telling about how he started yelling at an Imam just as Meursault did to a priest. Harun repeats virtually the same words that Meursault said at the end of his story.[69]

The theme of The Meursault Investigation was aptly stated by one reviewer as the importance of “individual responsibility,” which is something Harun does not display, nor did Meursault.[70]   In Meursault and Harun, we have characters pushed to the extreme of facing death as isolated individuals, Meursault through execution and Harun through old age.    They make some cogent social criticisms, because self-centered people are often acutely sensitive to slights and slight social injustices to themselves.  But they are also both selfish and at best amoral.  They are not held up by their creators as model citizens.  The moral of both books seems to be the need for human solidarity as a basis for individual responsibility.  Camus once commented that the trajectory of his work from The Stranger on was toward calling more insistently for human solidarity.  Daoud seems to be furthering that trajectory.

[1] Camus, Albert. The Myth of Sisyphus. New York: Vintage Books, 1955. p.73.

[2] As though any sane person during the 1780’s would want to keep a musket (the standard  gun at that time) in his/her house along with a bag of volatile gunpowder (needed for loading a musket) which could explode with the slightest change in humidity.  The reason the British were marching on Lexington and Concord during April, 1775, and fought the battles that are seen as the start of the American Revolution, was to confiscate the muskets and gunpowder Americans had stored in their militia armories that were located a safe distance from their homes.

[3] Daoud, Kamel. The Meursault Investigation. New York: Other Press, 2015.

[4]  Scherr, Arthur. “Camus’ The Stranger.” Baltimore Polytechnic Institute.bpi.edu  9/5/08.  Gnanasekarau, R. “Psychological Interpretation of the novel ‘The Stranger’ by Camus.” International Journal of English Literature and Culture, Vol.2(6). 6/6/14.  Charomonte, Nicola. “Albert Camus Thought That Life Is Meaningless.” The New Republic. newrepublic.com  11/7/14. John. “Algerian Writer Kamel Daoud Stands Camus’ ‘The Stranger’ on Its Head.” NPR Book Reviews. NPR.org. 6/23/15.

[5]  “The Stranger (novel). Wikipedia. 1/23/16.

[6]  “The Stranger.” Sparknotes.com. 1/23/16.

[7]   “The Stranger.” Amazon.com Review. 1/23/16.

[8]  Adler, Mortimer. How to Read a Book.

[9]  Although Camus worked with Sartre and other existentialists, he repeatedly rejected applying the label existentialist to himself.  Camus rejected what he saw as the radical skepticism bordering on nihilism of some existentialists.  But I think that some of the concepts developed by his one-time mentor and colleague Sartre can be legitimately used in analyzing The Stranger.

[10]  Sartre, Jean Paul. “Existentialism is a Humanism.”  Existentialism is a Humanism. New Haven, CN: Yale University Press, 2007. pp.25, 47.

[11]  Camus, Albert. The Stranger. New York: Vintage Books, 1946. pp.1, 151.

[12]  Daoud, Kamel. The Meursault Investigation. New York: Other Press, 2015. pp.137, 143.

[13]  Messud, Claire. “The Brother of ‘The Stranger.'” New York Review of Books. 10/22/15.

[14]  Camus, Albert. The Myth of Sisyphus. New York: Vintage Books, 1955. p.

[15]  Sartre, Jean Paul. “A Commentary on The Stranger.” Existentialism is a Humanism. New Haven, CN: Yale University Press, 2007. p.94.

[16]  Camus, Albert. The Stranger. New York: Vintage Books, 1946. p.123.

[17]  Camus, Albert. The Stranger. New York: Vintage Books, 1946. pp.121, 128.

[18]  Quoted in Gnanasekarau, R. “Psychological Interpretation of the novel ‘The Stranger’ by Camus.” International Journal of English Literature and Culture, Vol.2(6). June 6, 2014.

[19]  Gwyn, Aaron. “Albert Camus’ Poker-faced ‘Stranger’ Became a Much Needed Friend.” NPR Books, WBEZ.  August 10,2014.  Charomonte, Nicola. “Albert Camus Thought That Life Is Meaningless.” The New Republic. newrepublic.com  November 7, 2014.

[20]  Scherr, Arthur. “Camus’ The Stranger.” Baltimore Polytechnic Institute.bpi.edu  9/5/08.

[21]  Hudon, Louis. “The Stranger and the Critics.” Yale French Studies #25. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1960. pp.62-63.  Gnanasekarau, R. “Psychological Interpretation of the novel ‘The Stranger’ by Camus.”  International Journal of English Literature and Culture, Vol.2(6). June 6, 2014.

[22]  Podhoretz, Norman. “Camus and his critics.”  The New Criterion. November, 1982. at newcriterion.com

[23]  Poore, Charles. “The Stranger.” Books of the Times. The New York Times, April 11, 1946.

[24]  Camus, Albert. The Stranger. New York: Vintage Books, 1946. pp.76, 89.

[25]  Daoud, Kamel. The Meursault Investigation. New York: Other Press, 2015. pp.2, 7-8, 53.

[26] [26]  See grief.com/the-five-stages-of-grief

[27]  Camus, Albert. The Stranger. New York: Vintage Books, 1946. p.1.

[28]  Camus, Albert. The Stranger. New York: Vintage Books, 1946. p.11.

[29]  Camus, Albert. The Stranger. New York: Vintage Books, 1946. pp.44, 52.

[30]  Camus, Albert. The Stranger. New York: Vintage Books, 1946. pp.72, 75, 76.

[31]  Camus, Albert. The Stranger. New York: Vintage Books, 1946. pp.79, 109-112, 120, 125, 128.

[32]  Camus, Albert. The Stranger. New York: Vintage Books, 1946. pp.104-105, 112, 124, 130.

[33]  Camus, Albert. The Stranger. New York: Vintage Books, 1946. pp.136, 141, 143, 146, 148.

[34]  Camus, Albert. The Stranger. New York: Vintage Books, 1946. p.154.

[35] Camus, Albert. The Myth of Sisyphus. New York: Vintage Books, 1955. p.27.

[36] Hudon, Louis. “The Stranger and the Critics.” Yale French Studies #25. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1960. p.60.  Gnanasekarau, R. “Psychological Interpretation of the novel ‘The Stranger’ by Camus.” International Journal of English Literature and Culture, Vol.2(6). June 6, 2014.

[37] Podhoretz, Norman. “Camus and his critics.”  The New Criterion. November, 1982. at newcriterion.com  Ulin, David. “Review ‘The Meursault Investigation’ re-imagines Camus’ ‘The Stranger.'” Los Angeles Times. 5/28/15.

[38]  Sartre, Jean Paul.  “A Commentary on The Stranger.” Existentialism is a Humanism. New Haven, CN: Yale University Press, 2007. pp.76, 80, 81, 82, 84, 85.

[39] Camus, Albert. The Myth of Sisyphus. New York: Vintage Books, 1955. p.3.

[40] Camus, Albert. The Myth of Sisyphus. New York: Vintage Books, 1955. pp.11, 38, 39.

[41] Camus, Albert. The Myth of Sisyphus. New York: Vintage Books, 1955. pp.8, 22, 40, 76, 83.

[42] Camus, Albert. The Myth of Sisyphus. New York: Vintage Books, 1955. pp.89, 90.

[43] Camus, Albert. The Myth of Sisyphus. New York: Vintage Books, 1955. pp.41, 47, 66.

[44] Gnanasekarau, R. “Psychological Interpretation of the novel ‘The Stranger’ by Camus.” International Journal of English Literature and Culture, Vol.2(6). June 6, 2014.

[45] Scherr, Arthur. “Camus’ The Stranger.” Baltimore Polytechnic Institute.bpi.edu  9/5/08.

[46] Gwyn, Aaron. “Albert Camus’ Poker-faced ‘Stranger’ Became a Much Needed Friend.” NPR Books, WBEZ.  August 10,2014.

[47] Charomonte, Nicola. “Albert Camus Thought That Life Is Meaningless.” The New Republic. newrepublic.com  November 7, 2014.

[48] Quoted in Gnanasekarau, R. “Psychological Interpretation of the novel ‘The Stranger’ by Camus.” International Journal of English Literature and Culture, Vol.2(6). June 6, 2014.

[49]  Sartre, Jean Paul. Existentialism is a Humanism. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2007.

[50]  Camus, Albert. The Stranger. New York: Vintage Books, 1946. p.127.

[51] Camus, Albert. The Rebel. New York: Vintage Books, 1956, p.22

[52] Camus, Albert. The Rebel. New York: Vintage Books, 1956. pp.4-5.

[53]  “Albert Camus.” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. plato.stanford.edu  “The Rebel: Essay by Camus.” britannica.com.  “Camus: Portrait of a Rebel.” Socialist Standard. worldsocialism.org

[54]  Camus, Albert. The Rebel. New York: Vintage Books, 1956. pp.6, 8, 10, 281, 285.

[55]  Camus, Albert. The Rebel. New York: Vintage Books, 1956. pp.17, 22, 280, 297.

[56]  Daoud, Kamel. The Meursault Investigation. New York: Other Press, 2015. p.47.

[57]  Daoud, Kamel. The Meursault Investigation. New York: Other Press, 2015. pp.11, 34, 60.

[58]  Daoud, Kamel. The Meursault Investigation. New York: Other Press, 2015. pp.119,122.

[59]  Yassin-Kassab, Robin. “The Meursault Investigation by Kamel Daoud review – an instant classic.” the guardian. 6/24/15.

[60]  Messud, Claire. “The Brother of the ‘Stranger.'” New York Review of Books. 10/22/15.

[61]  Moaveni, Azadeh. “‘The Meursault Investigation’ by Kamel Daoud.” Financial Times. 6/10/15. Battersby, Ellen. “The Meursault Investigation by Kamel Daoud review: L’Estranger danger.” Irish Times. 6/27/15.

[62]  “The Meursault Investigation.” Kirkus Review.

[63]  Daoud, Kamel. The Meursault Investigation. New York: Other Press, 2015. p.66.

[64]  Daoud, Kamel. The Meursault Investigation. New York: Other Press, 2015. pp.77, 84, 88, 89.

[65]  Daoud, Kamel. The Meursault Investigation. New York: Other Press, 2015. p.143.

[66]  Daoud, Kamel. The Meursault Investigation. New York: Other Press, 2015. pp.53, 55.

[67]  Daoud, Kamel. The Meursault Investigation. New York: Other Press, 2015. p.89.

[68]  Daoud, Kamel. The Meursault Investigation. New York: Other Press, 2015. p.47.

[69]  Daoud, Kamel. The Meursault Investigation. New York: Other Press, 2015. p.140-142.

[70]  Powers, John. “Algerian Writer Kamel Daoud Stands Camus’ ‘The Stranger’ on Its Head.” NPR Book Reviews. NPR.org  6/23/15.