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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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Great Books Chicago 2018

May 18, 2018

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

Conversation: an oral exchange of sentiments, observations, opinions, or ideas.

Discussion: consideration of a question in an open and usually informal debate; or a formal treatment of a topic in speech or writing.

When does conversation become a discussion? According to Merriam-Webster, conversation flows freely between observations, opinions and topic. In other words, conversation is a fluid exchange between people. Discussion, on the other hand, tends to be more focused. In discussions, participants examine a specific question. One of the things that makes Great Books Chicago so fun is that it excels in both areas. There are social events to fill the needs of conversation, which complement the discussion sessions focused on specific readings. The most recent Great Books Chicago focused on popular culture through the lens of television, film and music. Popular culture often gets a bad reputation as if analysis of contemporary art forms is somehow less respectable than analysis of “classical” art or “high” art. The new trilogy by the Great Books Foundation, however, demonstrate important intersections between art and culture.

Some of my favorite discussions at Great Books Chicago focused on the critic’s role. In a selection by A.O. Scott from Better Living Through Criticism, Scott defends the role of the critic as an essential element of art. In a sense, professional critics raise the awareness of an average viewer. He claims that all humans desire to critique, even if it only surfaces in the form of selection (choosing one movie over another, for example). Furthermore, if we find ourselves critiquing something, we should have a valid reason for doing so. Scott writes, “What I’m more interested in here is the general tendency – I would really say the universal capacity for our species – to find fault. And also to bestow praise. To judge. That’s the bedrock of criticism. How do we know, or think we know, what’s good or bad?” Scott believes that if we are willing to label a piece of art as “good” or “bad,” then we should also understand the foundations of that criticism. In fact, society depends upon it in order to keep us on “the path of truth and beauty” in Scott’s view. He also refutes the misconception that only “intellectual” art deserves criticism, but rather the forms which find mass popularity. These forms reflect something vital back to us.

Attempting to engage with all of popular culture is daunting. Modern technology makes it possible for humans to spend the entire day without a break in media. Furthermore, many people run multiple platforms simultaneously. Headphones allow us to create an independent atmosphere and a playlist of our own. This does not mean, however, that we cannot listen attentively. Nor does it mean that we are becoming immune to art’s effects. But whatever our current rate of consumption does mean is worth investigating. Scott continues, “We are far too inclined to regard art as an ornament and to perceive taste as a fixed, narrow track along which each one of us travels, alone or in select, like-minded company.” Instead, he continues, “It’s the job of art to free our minds, and the task of criticism to figure out what to do with that freedom. That everyone is a critic means, or should mean, that we are each of us capable of thinking against our own prejudices, of balancing skepticism with open-mindedness, of sharpening our dulled and glutted senses and battling the intellectual inertia that surrounds us. We need to put our remarkable minds to use and to pay our own experience the honor of taking it seriously.” (258) In other words, try to understand why you like what you like.

During Great Books Chicago, I met with many wonderful folks who had lots of ideas, some of them different from my own. Through discussion we find likeness and difference. I appreciate this format because of its freedom from personal judgment. Rather than being attacked for my ideas, some of which are decent and some of which are wrong, I better understand the difference. As a result of discussion, I make more well-rounded and better-informed decisions. Since art is a form which demands criticism, selecting something (even on my private iPod) can be viewed as a public act. As Scott says, “[T]here’s no such thing as a private or personal criticism. It has to be a public act.” I wonder if our personal “tastes” function the same way as a Facebook algorithm which feeds us only what we want to see? I do believe that it is worth looking at the reasons behind our choices, tastes, behaviors and critiques. Great Books Chicago is an ideal platform for thoughtful debate. (One other aspect of discussion that bears mentioning here is that there is no mandatory participation. Many people enjoy adding their opinions, but there is no mandate which asks us to participate. Some people simply enjoy hearing others debate. However you like to participate, these opportunities tend to elevate the dialogue.)

Discussion enlightens an astonishing amount of viewpoints generated from a single piece of art. Another selection from the trilogy by Neil Postman, “The Age of Show Business,” examines how television is primarily a medium for entertainment. Therefore, anything we view on television should first be understood as attempting to entice the viewer through visuals. He writes, “A news show, to put it plainly, is a format for entertainment, not for education, reflection, or catharsis. And we must not judge too harshly those who have framed it in this way. They are not assembling the news to be read, or broadcasting it to be heard. They are televising the news to be seen. They must follow where their medium leads. There is no conspiracy here, no lack of intelligence, only a straightforward recognition that ‘good television’ has little to do with what is ‘good’ about exposition or other forms of verbal communication but everything to do with what the pictorial image looks like.” If we are to better understand ourselves (as individuals and as a part of any larger culture), it is worth our time to investigate where we spend our time and why. If something in our nature demands that we judge and critique, then doing so in group discussion benefits everyone.

For more about Great Books Chicago, visit the Great Books Foundation website. Join us next year for Great Books Chicago 2019!

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What Is Science Fiction

April 27, 2018

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

A couple of weeks ago, I had the pleasure of attending a three-day conference hosted by the Great Books Council of San Francisco. The event, which took place at Asilomar, offers four discussions focused on one play, one work of non-fiction, one of fiction and a handful of poems. The wonderful selections were further enriched through discussion. The selected fiction was Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness. Though this story is set on a distant planet and in a distant future, I connected with many of the issues raised in the text. Personally, I feel that Le Guin brilliantly demonstrated what it is like to meet a culture very different from your own. It included political frustrations, tensions between genders, misunderstandings of all kinds, economic interests, and an epic journey. To be honest, the setting could be nearly anywhere and at any time because she addressed so many universal societal issues. However, in moving the narrative outside of “earthly” restrictions, Le Guin allows for dynamic debate, divorced from possibly hurtful particulars. So, in part, science fiction allows for an emotional detachment in a way that actual events or specific names and places would not allow.

More than that, though, science fiction allows the reader to examine the consequences of what we often call “progress”. In last week’s blog, HMU Fellow in Ideas, Matt Phillips wrote about one of the benefits of writing in a noir style. He writes: “Noir—as a genre and practice—provides an effective palette for drawing, defining, and collapsing contrasts. And contrast, on its face, is what disparity is—an ill-drawn, and often evil, contrast.” In a similar fashion, science fiction provides a palette for understanding unknowns. As science progresses at light speed, it moves far past the average citizen’s grasp. There is no way to keep track of each scientific study or each new technological platform. Science’s broad reach affects our daily lives in demonstrable ways, but more often than not, understanding a new device arrives as an after-effect. Regulators and lawyers struggle to keep abreast of changing technologies. We even struggle to name new technologies, which we often base off of natural phenomena such as “cloud computing” or “website”. The science fiction writer is tasked with thinking in terms of possibility. What if faster is not better? Or, what if faster is greatly better? What are the possible outcomes of gene-therapy? Or, who should have access to such potentially powerful tools?

Science fiction, however, does not predict futures. It simply explores them. In the preface to The Left Hand of Darkness, Le Guin writes:


“This book is not extrapolative. If you like you can read it, and a lot of other science fiction, as a thought-experiment. Let’s say (says Mary Shelley) that a young doctor creates a human being in his laboratory; let’s say (says Philip K. Dick) that the Allies lost the Second World War; let’s say this or that is such and so, and see what happens…. In a story so conceived, the moral complexity proper to the modern novel need not be sacrificed, nor is there any built-in dead end; thought and intuition can move freely within bounds set only be the terms of the experiment, which may be very large indeed.

“The purpose of a thought-experiment, as the term was used by Schrödinger and other physicists, is not to predict the future – indeed  Schrödinger’s most famous thought-experiment goes to show that the “future,” on the quantum level, cannot be predicted – but to describe the reality, the present world.”

In a recent report on genetic technology, NIH Director Francis Collins claims: “When something truly significant is discovered its consequences are overestimated in the short term and underestimated in the long term." Simply put, it is difficult for the non-scientist to understand the scope of the continual scientific evolution. Therefore, the science fiction writer designs and creates a thought experiment meant to discover potential outcomes. The evolution of science fiction seems natural to me, as humans progressively depend upon and live with technology. Excited by new capabilities, we are also curious about implications. For example, what if anyone could alter their own genes; should they?

In another article, new types of data are being used to identify poverty and restructure impoverished areas. I found it particularly interesting to see the diverse groups necessary to discuss such implementations. The article mentions:  “a coalition of homeowners, renters, people with the experience of homelessness, nonprofit developers, community associations, religious institutions, policy experts, and university faculty” who will discuss human rights issues in such a difficult transition. I can see how science programs (such as STEM or STEAM) benefit society. I also firmly believe that ethics courses are as necessary as science. I believe that this is another benefit of science fiction: it is almost a category between the two, uniting science with fictitious outcomes in which we can ask ethical questions. It is authors like Le Guin who question our understanding of progress. I do not mean to imply that we should not embrace technology or change. In fact, rather the opposite. I embrace science, science fiction and ethics as all necessary parts of my education.

In addition to excellent discussions, the group at Asilomar listened to a keynote speech by Corie Ralston, current director of the Berkeley Center for Structural Biology. Not only is she a scientist, but she also writes science fiction. She gave a wonderful presentation that included a short history of science fiction, but also a hopeful future for the genre. Her website describes a deep-rooted love of science, nature, creative thought and reading. She writes: “If writing is a way to emotionally understand our world, then science is a way to practically understand our world. And science is more than that to me: it is a way of exploring and creating and learning how to think. It uses the best of our human nature. It is a continual source of awe.” I could not agree more.

Thanks to the wonderful folks of the Great Books Council of San Francisco for welcoming me into their discussions!

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