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The Misfit's Wickedness

May 24, 2019

Thanks to James Keller, HMU student, for today's post.

Borrowing from Bradbury, Great Books Chicago 2019 was titled: Something Wicked This Way Comes. Taken as a statement rather than a title, it is a somewhat comforting thought—at least initially. If the wicked thing is coming, it is something outside and not of ourselves. It is something foreign to humanity, perhaps a distortion of humanity, but not endemic to humanity. But comfort turns cold when one asks, from where does this wicked thing come? From where does wickedness itself come? How is it that otherwise good people sometimes perform horrifying acts of violence? How is it that people have at times submitted themselves to great oppression, and worse, that they have become complicit in aiding the oppression of others? Lingering in the back of the mind is dread, the fear that wickedness is not something foreign after all, but something to which any one of us might be prone under the right—or rather, wrong—circumstances. Whence wickedness?

Among the readings at Great Books Chicago 2019 was Flannery O’Connor’s “A Good Man Is Hard to Find.” In that short story, a murderer and thief who has adopted the name, The Misfit, explains the source of his own wickedness. The cause of his criminality is rooted in his doubts regarding the resurrecting power of Jesus. If Jesus did indeed do as he claimed to have done, The Misfit asserts, then one has no choice but to follow him, but “if He didn’t, then it’s nothing for you to do but enjoy the few minutes you got left the best way you can—by killing somebody or burning down his house or doing some other meanness to him. No pleasure but meanness” (71-72). He goes on to say that he wishes he could be certain whether or not Jesus raised the dead, because, if he had certain knowledge of the resurrection, he would not be like he is. But, the reader asks, why should religious doubt lead The Misfit to the mistreatment of his fellow human beings?

The search for an answer to this question involves other related questions: Why these pleasures? If one said that without a resurrection, one might as well devote himself to the pleasures of the moment, it does not follow that those must entail violence. Pleasure comes in many forms: food, sex, alcohol, art, fine conversation—perhaps about great books—sports... and so on. Why, then, does The Misfit focus on the pleasure to be derived from violence? And then, If there is no pleasure but meanness, why does he say about killing the grandmother, “It’s no real pleasure in life”? (73). By studying these questions, we may understand how The Misfit’s religious doubt is the root of his wickedness.

The limited pleasures of The Misfit grow out of a unique form of despair. For some, moral despair is induced by the belief that one is unable to improve, due to a natural badness or weakness of character. Because they find it unthinkable that they could morally improve themselves, they no longer make the attempt. This is just who I am. But this is not the source of despair in The Misfit. In his case, he cannot fathom why he ought to be punished. He relates the story of being imprisoned, despite being unable to remember the original crime. He is told that he killed his father, but he does not believe this to be true, claiming that his father died of the flu some time ago (69). An ambivalence marks his speech regarding his punishment. On the one hand, he suggests that he was rightly punished: “They had the papers on me” (69). But on the other, he expresses mistrust in the system that punished him, saying that no one ever showed him those papers and that from now on, he makes sure to keep a copy of all papers, with signatures: “Then you’ll know what you done and you can hold up the crime to the punishment and see they do match and in the end you’ll have something to prove you ain’t been treated right” (71). Indeed, he calls himself “The Misfit,” not because he feels no sense of belonging, but because he knows of no crime he committed that merited the punishment he received (71). Moreover, he expresses indignation that punishment is dispensed arbitrarily, with one being “punished a heap,” while another is not “punished at all” (71).

The fact that The Misfit is punished for an unknown crime is the motivation for his malevolent behavior—a case of “Let the crime fit the punishment.” His is a despair that grows out of his perception that the world is fundamentally unjust. If one is going to be punished, despite having never performed a crime—at least that he can remember—then he might as well be a criminal. He might as well do something worth punishing. His criminality is a twisted attempt to restore justice to the world by making himself worthy of his punishment.

But, if The Misfit’s criminality is an expression of his despair, then it can bring him no joy. This is one reason killing the grandmother and her family brings no pleasure. It is true that he sees something good in her before killing her, and this seems to produce a sorrow in him over killing her. He seems regretful when he says: “She would have been a good woman if it had been somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life” (73). But the statement, “It’s no real pleasure in life” is broader than the regret of the single action. He expresses the lack of pleasure in the violence altogether, which supports the notion that his violence is an expression of his despair.

The Misfit’s despair and his complaint against the system can be read as a complaint against the doctrine of original sin. If one is born into the world worthy of punishment for the crimes of his forebears, crimes of which one has no memory, one response to that might be to be worthy of the promised punishment. The Misfit likens his punishment to that of Jesus, with the only exception being that “they” had no papers on Jesus (71). Both punishments appear to him to be unjust. Yet, in theory, Jesus was able to ultimately overcome death, i.e. reverse his punishment, while The Misfit cannot do so himself, except through belief in Jesus’ power to raise the dead. Through belief in the resurrection, The Misfit would be able to escape the punishment of death which he inherited. But, because he lacks certainty, he is left with the notion that he will be punished for crimes unknown to him, to a degree he cannot imagine having merited.

For The Misfit, then, the root of his wickedness is his religious doubt, the uncertainty that he merits death as a punishment and the uncertainty that he can be delivered from that death by Jesus. The belief that he will be punished, whether he is wicked or not, inspires him to pursue the pleasure to be found in violence. But, being motivated by despair, that violence cannot be an object of enjoyment, only an expression of rage against his perception that the world is unjust.

It will be obvious to the reader that the source of The Misfit’s wickedness is not the source of all human wickedness. The other readings at Great Books Chicago furnished other—perhaps “answers” is too strong a word—avenues for considering the origin of wickedness. They furnished us with good material for discussion. And, if it is a troubling notion that humans are capable of so much evil, some comfort is found in discussing the matter with others, looking together for the roots of wickedness within ourselves that they may be uprooted and never bear fruit.

I wish to express my gratitude to the organizers, speakers, discussion leaders, and fellow readers of Great Books Chicago 2019 and to Harrison Middleton University.

Work Cited

O’Connor, Flannery. “A Good Man Is Hard to Find.” Vital Ideas: Crime. Ed. Theresa Starkey. Great Books Foundation. 2011, pp. 53-73.

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Great Books Chicago 2019

May 17, 2019

Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today’s post.

Great Books Chicago is a weekend of book discussions held in Chicago. We meet at the Great Books Foundation and break off into separate rooms for discussions. We also attend events as a larger group. This year’s theme was Something Wicked This Way Comes which opened the door for a discussion of crime. We began with Flannery O’Connor’s short story “The Misfit,” which is an exceptionally well-crafted story. (Check back next week for more on this story specifically.) We also discussed “The Grand Inquisitor” from The Brothers Karamazov, The Handmaid’s Tale, and The Meaning of Human Existence by Edward O. Wilson.

What I love about these events – book discussions hosted around the world – is the great variety of people who attend. People with different occupations, experiences, and specialties always bring such interesting insights to the table. I welcome opinions that differ from mine because it allow me to learn more about humanity and the world. I genuinely believe that discussions like this humanize the world – permit us to glimpse something other than ourselves and our perspective. Moreover, when a larger group like this does find common ground in a text, it makes the likelihood of common ground on tough issues more approachable.

Rather than offer a summary of our discussions from my perspective, I thought it would be more interesting to use a few of E.O. Wilson’s words which underscore another reason that I treasure Great Books Chicago: the focus on interdisciplinary conversation. He writes:

“Studying the relation between science and the humanities should be at the heart of liberal education everywhere, for students of science and the humanities alike. That’s not going to be easy to achieve, of course. Among the fiefdoms of academia and punditry there exists a great variation in acceptable ideology and procedure. Western intellectual life is ruled by hard-core specialists. At Harvard University, for example, where I taught for four decades, the dominant criterion in the selection of new faculty was preeminence or the promise of preeminence in a specialty….

“The early stages of creative thought, the ones that do count, do not arise from jigsaw puzzles of specialization. The most successful scientist thinks like a poet – wide-ranging, sometimes fantastical – and works like a bookkeeper. It is the latter role that the world sees. When writing a report for a technical journal or speaking at a conference of fellow specialists, the scientist avoids metaphor. He is careful never to be accused of rhetoric or poetry. A very few loaded words may be used, if kept to the introductory paragraphs and the discussion following the presentation of data, and if added to clarify the meaning of a technical concept, but they are never used for the primary purpose of stirring emotion. The language of the author must at all times be restrained and obedient to logic based on demonstrable fact.

“The exact opposite is the case in poetry and the other creative arts. There metaphor is everything. The creative writer, composer, or visual artist conveys, often obliquely by abstraction or deliberate distortion, his own perceptions and the feelings he hopes to evoke – about something, about anything, real or imagined. He seeks to bring forth in an original way some truth or other about the human experience. He tries to pass what he creates directly along the channel of human experience, from his mind to your mind. His work is judged by the power and beauty of its metaphors. He obeys a dictum ascribed to Picasso: art is the lie that shows us the truth.” (40-42)

I quote all of that text not to say that E.O. Wilson’s book is perfect, but his point resonates with me. Increasing specialization and increasing separation will, most likely, lead to more separation. There is a key factor missing in much of our education – the idea of integration. I like that Wilson devotes a chunk of his book to the ways in which humanities may inform other disciplines. And vice versa. I do think that it is important to continue these conversations and to broaden our worldview as much as possible.

I greatly appreciate this joint effort between Harrison Middleton University and Great Books Foundation for hosting such a fantastic event! And again, check back for next week’s blog which continues with a discussion of wickedness.

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Math According to Archimedes and Hardy

February 1, 2019

Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today’s post.

I have a number of questions still rumbling around after Harrison Middleton University’s January Quarterly Discussion. We read Archimedes’ Sand Reckoner and G. H. Hardy’s Mathematician’s Apology. I put these two pieces together because I am interested in mathematical discourse separated by thousands of years. More than time, however, they also came from different parts of the world, encountered very different technological advances, and lived immensely different lifestyles. Archimedes of Syracuse was a Greek mathematician and inventor who lived around 287-212 BC. Hardy, on the other hand, was born in 1877 in England and showed an early aptitude for numbers. He continued with math through college when he became largely interested in “pure mathematics” which, he claimed, is more noble than practical math. So, my first question is whether or not Archimedes’ Sand Reckoner corresponds to pure math, or practical math?

In The Sand Reckoner (which I have written about before), Archimedes sets out to demonstrate that math has strategies to break down something as large and abstract as the measure of the universe, or the grains of sand on earth. His proof begins with rather large assumptions, such as “I suppose the diameter of the sun to be about 30 times that of the moon and not greater.” Initially, I did not understand why Archimedes would base a proof upon such unknowns. However, I have always thought that the exercise was more to inspire imagination than prove an actuality. And now, based upon conversation during the Quarterly Discussion, I see that Archimedes wanted not just to inspire imagination, but to demonstrate the potential of math. He was explaining that math functions on strategies which engenders new information. This would be important, of course, living in a time when math was largely unknown and therefore, seen as untrustworthy. So, to me, The Sand Reckoner is not a proof of any one thing, but a proof of math itself. He asks his king, other educators, and perhaps his community to believe in the potential of math and to contemplate questions of great size.

Jumping forward to Hardy’s piece, then, he draws a very decisive line between practical mathematicians and pure mathematicians. Practical math builds things like bridges and steam engines. Pure math contemplates greatness. For some reason, Hardy’s differentiation always brings me back to Archimedes, who built levers and invented all sorts of practical things, but yet also contemplated the universe. Does the mathematician who builds the bridge not also dwell upon other possibilities? Surely not all of them do, but I find Hardy’s approach very severe and limiting. I am not sure if his words are meant to inspire others to attempt a career in math, or to explain to the masses how little they actually know. Either way, I feel that the work fails when placed next to something like Archimedes’ proof which shows math’s potential rather than belabors the value of ambitious men. Perhaps, though, my perspective is naive, since I do not grasp much of the math that would place me in this elite group.

Clearly Hardy values creative thought over any other pursuit. I can identify with this, but I wonder if his criticisms speak to moral dilemmas of his day. Hardy wrote A Mathematician’s Apology in 1940. I have to think that war-time inventions must have been on his mind when he differentiated between practical and pure mathematics. And yet again, I return to thinking about Archimedes who built many machines of war such as the Archimedes Claw and catapults. Does this remove him from the rank of pure mathematician (if he was ever considered such)? In theory, I believe that I understand Hardy’s point. In fact, I relish the idea that a life of creative thought or philosophical discourse is as worthy as shipbuilding. This would justify my own life as well. However, it seems rarer that society allows such thinking to exist. Rather, society is structured in a way in which we must all pay for food and shelter, and creative thought does not pay. I think that perhaps Hardy might have been trying to tell us, the public, that we should value creativity more than we currently do.

Additionally, his message does not address morality at all, which the group found interesting. I wonder how Hardy would tie ambition to morality. He glories in the uselessness of math because it cannot be tied to evil. He writes,

“If the theory of numbers could be employed for any practical and obviously honourable purpose, if it could be turned directly to the furtherance of human happiness or the relief of human suffering, as physiology and even chemistry can, then surely neither [Carl Friedrich] Gauss nor any other mathematician would have been so foolish as to decry or regret such applications. But science works for evil as well as for good (and particularly, of course, in times of war); and both Gauss and lesser mathematicians may be justified in rejoicing that there is one science, at any rate, and that their own, whose very remoteness from ordinary human activities should keep it gentle and clean.”

According to Hardy, pure math never filters into practical applications. I find this reasoning illogical, though since again, levers as created by Archimedes were once thought impossible and are now the foundation of much greater machines. In my mind, the lever was purely theoretical at one point and is now elementary science. Also, once public, how can anyone protect the ways in which their work will be used (or not used)? How can Hardy surmise that the pure math of today will not be the applied math of tomorrow? And does its application make it any less pure?

As always, I am indebted to a wonderful group who wanders through these questions with me. The next Quarterly Discussion will be held in April 2019. For more information email asimon@hmu.edu. I look forward to hearing from you!

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Narrative of Helen Keller

November 30, 2018

Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today’s post.

Recently, I read The Story of My Life by Helen Keller. (I have already expressed my appreciation for the way she describes language in a previous post.) I was also quite taken with her reflections on nature, which played a large role in her education and entertainment. She also speaks eloquently about the excitement and challenges of travel and college. During university, Keller notes the difficulty in finding some of the college-level texts in braille. She often had to wait for resources to be translated or shipped. In addition to school, however, she enjoyed art, literature, travel, and conversation. During her travels, Keller spoke to many celebrities, artists, and scientists. As a way of greeting, she often touched their face or to read their lips. In turn, they waited patiently for translators and interpreters. With strong will and curiosity, Helen Keller defied unimaginable odds to overcome her disabilities. Of course, her family had the means to seek and provide these resources. They found teachers and sought help from celebrated scientists, educators, and politicians. The combination of her own personal endowments with that of her family’s wealth and sacrifice create an incredible story well worth the short time it takes to read.

Today, however, I want to focus on Keller herself and the way that a person becomes textualized. Having proclaimed my appreciation for The Story of My Life, I do also see her narrative as a reflective, nostalgic view of life. As with all texts, I enjoy the ability to discover both hidden truths and falsehoods. Perhaps she has romanticized elements of her story. Perhaps her story is no more noteworthy than so many others sitting on today’s bookshelves. Over the years, however, some of Keller’s works have been banned, which begs the question: what makes her story unique and worthwhile? Why should we continue to read her words?All things considered, I tend to agree with History.com which claims: “Widely honored throughout the world and invited to the White House by every U.S. president from Grover Cleveland to Lyndon B. Johnson, Keller altered the world’s perception of the capacities of the handicapped. More than any act in her long life, her courage, intelligence, and dedication combined to make her a symbol of the triumph of the human spirit over adversity.”

The Story of My Life was written during Keller’s college years. The fact that she later became a voice of socialist movements has been well-documented. Though socialist agendas do not show up in this early memoir, she does give a hint of frustration with the world in Chapter XXII. She writes, “It seems to me that there is in each of us a capacity to comprehend the impressions and emotions which have been experienced by mankind from the beginning. Each individual has a subconscious memory of the green earth and murmuring waters, and blindness and deafness cannot rob him of this gift from past generations. This inherited capacity is a sort of sixth sense - a soul-sense which sees, hears, feels, all in one.” Clearly she connects with the cosmos, with nature, and with other people who remain ghosts to everything but her hands. She continues, “The sun and the air are God's free gifts to all, we say; but are they so? In yonder city's dingy alleys the sun shines not, and the air is foul. Oh, man, how dost thou forget and obstruct thy brother man, and say, ‘Give us this day our daily bread,’ when he has none! Oh, would that men would leave the city, its splendour and its tumult and its gold, and return to wood and field and simple, honest living! Then would their children grow stately as noble trees, and their thoughts sweet and pure as wayside flowers. It is impossible not to think of all this when I return to the country after a year of work in town.” This voice echoes Walt Whitman. It has been reinforced by her particular brand of religion. It also echoes socialist ideas which she embraces later in life.

Even so, her letters, essays, and books help give depth and understanding to the era of both World Wars. During this time, she corresponded with many famous and influential people, which itself alone merits reading. What is it, though, that makes any story worthwhile? I have to believe that Keller, like so many others, writes in order to understand what life is, to speak her story, and to preserve her memory. I wonder if the desire to leave something lasting pressed upon her because she lived in a tangible, but invisible world? In The Story of My Life, she describes the joys and frustrations of communication without hearing or vision. What must it be like to take everything on faith, to depend upon others for everything? She must, of course, resort to the written word as a natural path of communication.

As I think about this story again, despite its faults, I find no reason to remove the reading. Others disagree, however, and even this year the state of Texas has proposed removing Helen Keller from their curriculum. (She has been overshadowed in the media, though, due to the possibility of Clinton’s removal). I wish that I had been included in those conversations because having read Keller’s works, the removal of them makes me wonder: Why do we read if not to discover a world of ideas, some of which may challenge our own? If we seek to remove Helen Keller’s works, then have we not artificially textualized them? It seems to me that any singular or explicit definition of her work has replaced Keller with text. In other words, in removing context, we have also removed the person.

This is something that I am still coming to terms with myself. In reading through the Great Books it is easy to forget that Dante or Hume or Homer was a person. Plutarch carefully reminds the reader again and again that Rome was ruled by people, not giants. Certainly, history offers any number of problematic authors, but we are skillful readers. We ourselves are curious and intelligent, interested in the world, and to me, that means that we are capable of pursuing problematic texts for ourselves. And if we seek to encourage critical thinking skills in others, then we must provide opportunities. This post is not intended to be a defense of Helen Keller, but rather a defense of the idea of exploration. There are few women in history who have provided us with so many writings, not just her own memoirs, but letters to (and from) many influential people of note. I think it serves us better as educators and students to flesh out this person of interest rather than discard her as a firebrand of little worth.

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