Big Books of American Literature: Alchemies of Mind
Day 22: Thursday, April 6, 2006
Halfway through
Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

Getting Out of the Rut
--and "Feeling the Dooziness"

" was rough living in the house all the time, considering how dismal regular and decent the widow was in all her ways; and so when I couldn't stand it no longer, I lit out....All I wanted was to go somewheres; all I wanted was a change, I warn't particular" (7-8).

"Well, the days went along, and the river went down between its banks again....Next morning I said it was getting slow and dull, and I wanted to get a stirring up, some way" (47).

Not unrelatedly...
taking a moment, first, to remember Hester;
and with Allie's help, to remember her as LOVER--
but as a very un-Rortian, un-Spinozean sort of
NON-DEPENDENT(?) lover of-the-pleasures-of-the-world.

Rebecca Goldstein

Hester Prynne, from "Historical Costumes on Film"

Chillingworth speaking, in Chapter 4, "The Interview," The Scarlet Letter: "It was my folly, and my weakness. I,--a man of thought,--the bookworm of great libraries,--a man already in decay, having given my best years to feed the hungry dream of knowledge,--what had I to do with youth and beauty like thy own!....My heart was a habitation large enough for many guests, but lonely and chill, and without a household fire. I longed to kindle one! It seemed not so wild a dream...that the simple bliss, which is scattered far and wide, for all mankind to gather up, might yet be mine. And so, Hester, I drew thee into my heart, into its innermost chamber, and sought to warm thee by the warmth which thy presence made there!"
Rebecca Goldstein, "The Two Cultures," in The Jewish Experience in Contemporary Literature: Two Worlds? Special issue of Maggid. Ed. M. Kramer, The Toby Press, 2004):

a couple of preparatory notes: Alicia Ostriker parenthetically mentioned last night (always pay attention to those parentheses) that she was surprised to learn that the hardest of the ten commandments is said to be the fifth, adjuring us to honor our parents. She said she'd always assumed that the hardest was the seventh, forbidding adultery.

Well, I'm solidly with Alicia on this one. In fact, I would argue that the better a Jew you are the harder it is to keep the seventh, because, being the good Jew that you are, you are vividly attentive to the sheer loveliness of so many. Of course, if you're a good Jew then you don't--you can't--give yourself to all the forms that loveliness takes; but because you're so very much aware of these myriad forms, because your soul quivers in exultant celebration of them all, well, the seventh is a doozy. We're meant to feel its dooziness--which is why I think that with all the many sub-groups we Jews have produced, all the liberties of interpretation that we've taken with the tradition, we've never gone in for asceticism, for that denial of our sensual nature, in love with sensual beauty, that would make keeping the seventh far too easy. That wouldn't be Jewish.

So to be a good Jew, I would argue, is to arduously attain that love of pure objectivity in which the accidents of precedents matter not a wit. That divine apikorus was a splendid Jew after all, as was Einstein. And to be a good Jew is to love one's own people, just as one loves one's own family--that is without much of any sort of good reason at all, certainly not for any reason that would lay claim on a purely objective human being. And loving one's people means loving their stories.

And so I love Jewish stories, as do all of you here. That doesn't preclude our loving all other stories as well. Of course we do, as good Jews. That is what is asked of us, what we ask of ourselves: out of our ragingly conflicted souls, stretched wide by the force of loving in so many irreconcilable directions, that we be--that we write--Jewish.

Hester Prynne, @
the Infamous Babes Show

Shifting, now, from Hester to Huck
(is it such a shift? both are life-loving...)
...and from adultery to economics
(is it such a shift? given that economics
"starts with the assumption that individuals
will act to maximize their happiness," and
"makes no distinction between needs and wants"....???)

What is the role of economics in literature?
What is its role in Huckleberry Finn?
Can rational choice theory help us explain
either individual or "aggregate behavior" in the novel?
Is it a mistake to ask the first question?
(Does that involve a "confusion of levels"?)
How would you gather data to answer the second?

Anna's questions::
i dont know...i'm still left thinking about the economics discussion that we had last thursday. how does it relate? it was interesting, yes, but without help from allie (ally? allison!), i wasnt really able to make the connections from economics to the scarlet letter or emotions or...anything! where was that supposed to take us? did it do it's job? should i feel fulfilled when i clearly feel confused? i dont know - it seemed a little off the beaten path - and we've been working SO HARD to carve out room for emotions and how to read them and what they mean... amelie seemed more on the right track, but still a little ... "off". she was a trip and a half though, so it was great to sit though. philosophy is weird though - i was so relieved when she made that comment about how philosophers question and question and question, talk and talk and talk, but really all theyre doing is going around in a circle - getting nowhere...funny that she's changed her tune to ambivalence <-- i think THAT is truly hitting the nail on the head.

And Lauren's assertion: Irrational? But of course!
I am sitting in Guild and we just finished our class with David Ross about 15 minutes ago and I keep thinkning about what Anne said about how the literature that we have read in this class is all about characters that behave irrationally. Isn't that true of all novels? Let me back up for a second. Economics studies trends. Economists are interested in group behavior and studying statistics and polls and finding out what the majority is up to at any particular point in time. They are concerned with the mainstream, with conventions and what some might call conformity. That's BORING. Who wants to read a novel about group trends for entertainment purposes? That's not Literature, (with a capital "L"), that's observational social science. That's graphs and charts and numbers. I want to hear stories about mavericks, individuals pioneers--the subversive freaks who behave unconventionally and do NOT conform. They're the one's that do interesting things. They're the ones worth writing about, and the ones that MOST people would prefer to read about. I want to read about the guy who wakes up in the morning and thinks he's a cockroach. I want to know more about the king that gouges out his eyes because he unwittingly kills his father and marries his own mother. I want to hear about the Puritan woman who has an affair with her minister, bears his child and is shunned from the community. Interest in the individual is not particular to the novels we've read in this class--that's entertainment.

Get into (new!?) groups of four to discuss these ideas
More pointedly: is it more useful/educational to learn about individuals or groups?
About the exception or the mean?
Or to compare the two? How do they compare in Huck Finn?

As assistance/background:
a review of what I learned, a week ago, from David Ross,
"On Rational Choice and Economic Behavior"

You might want to look particularly @ Huck's apology @ the end of Chapter 15
(Cf. also Ralph Wiley's version)
The Graterford/Shepherdson Feud in Chapter 18
The Duke and the Dauphin's Shenanighans in Chapter 19

Laine: now I'm stumped. If we are not supposed to find a motive, moral, or plot in this story, what's left?

Emily: When I read the story critically, as I know I'm expected to do, I feel like I lose the true essence. Reading it for enjoyment seems like the best way to me.

Jackie: I also like the Picaresque-ness (can I say that?) of the novel -- the lack of a proper plot... a nice change from The Scarlet Letter. In response to Laine's question, I'm not really sure what we're supposed to do with this novel if there isn't a plot or a moral, etc, but I'm enjoying it for what it is at the moment, and maybe that's all that was intended by it...Up until now (when I was just made aware of it) I've been grooving along not thinking to question what's happening in the book.

Laura O: By painting his somber life with adventures maybe he is making it more colorful for his audience and more bearable for himself. With this notion, I will continue to read Huckıs account suspiciously, but not viewing him as a liar or even as an exaggerator, but just as a boy whose purpose may be distraction.

Marina: I really like the beginning of the novel with the "notice" about not trying to find a moral to the story. I have already ranted about being pressed to find morals and how that can often detract from the enjoyment of reading, so this is a refreshing start to a classic book!

Cat: I do not, however, buy into the Notice at the very beginning of the story. The idea that the novel has no plot, moral, or, most importantly, motive is somewhat absurd. I tend to think this type of statement only makes the reader try even harder to find a point to the book. Huck's account of everything from religion, his relationship with Jim, discussions of politics and monarchies, description of people living in the North and South, and the total humbuggery of the 'duke' and the 'king' all seem to be part of a greater critique of American society

Literature Review to End
(with a focus on a critique of "systems," not a celebration of "individuals")
logical end of any relationship in which 1 person is subject, other object:
no matter how they feel, or what their intentions are,
logic of relationship is inherently tragic and traps both parties
until the false subject/object relation is ended
slavery an economic system; personal relations don't mitigate evil

idealizing relation of Huck-Jim invites complacency:
self-congratulation re: racial prejudice
core issue re: who speaks for the negro?
in "our" (tragic white) hearts, imaginary national first person always white
dialogue between good-hearted white novelist and white readers
now questioned by literate Negroes
Huck's revolt is not morally impressive:
subversive project w/ reader's complete approval: bland sentimental action
basis for irony: Huck doesn't know/readers do that slavery was doomed
moral lesson of HF is absolute: slavery was a sin
but where does book stand on racism?
crux of pain: no new way of saying new sense of world
still uses word part of system he rejects; continuing usage keeps it alive

both Smiley and Arac read novel as distasteful liberal bad faith:
investment in good intentions
claim that we can be held responsible for unintended effects of what we do
radical project: imagines what it would mean to perform action
that can be narrated only from outside the self
(undermines authority of self-presentation/ illusion of presentness)
novel about limits of intention: held acountable for your effects, not your feelings
fantasy of national responsibility/moral action:
Huck's experience/attitude irrelevant;
concern w/ systematic harm, collective responsibility

...which seems to bring us back to economics!!

Next week: racist jokes.
(Read also third quarter of the novel, through Chapter 31).

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