Psychology and Literature

I have often thought (and have been known to remark in public) that there is more insight into the human psyche in a good novel than there is in many a psychology text-book. I would modify that somewhat and now remark that there is considerable psychological insight even in the short stories of consummate writers such as Anton Chekhov.

Indeed, in “A Calamity” written by this medical man only about eight years after he started publishing his short stories, Chekhov presents us with a wonderfully understated  study of a young woman who finds herself suddenly at war with herself. His heroine, Sofya Petrovna, is a happily married woman with a husband she loves and a daughter she adores. But she is pursued by a suitor, Ivan Mihailovich, who worships the ground she walk on. Despite her conscious repulsion from the fact that she finds the man’s advances flattering and even desirable, she finds herself drawn toward Ivan and unable to shake herself loose from her fascination with him and his love for her. She attempts to push him away, with little effort and no effect whatever, and begins to look at her husband and even her daughter differently. The husband she has loved now appears dull and insipid. “My God,” she thinks to herself, “I love and respect him, but. . . . why does he chew his food so disgustingly?” Later as she examines him napping after dinner, she notices “his feet, very small, almost feminine, in striped socks; there was a thread sticking up at the tip of each sock.” Even her daughter puts her off; as she picks her up she finds her “heavy and irresponsive.” Clearly, her perspective has altered and as she admonishes herself, calling herself “shameless thing,” and “vile creature,” she leaves her husband and “choking with shame” finds herself “pushed forward” by something “stronger than shame, reason, or fear” away from her husband and daughter and toward a clandestine meeting with Ivan.

There are a number of things that strike the reader about this remarkable story. For all its brevity, it is beautifully written and a subtle study of the battle that is going on inside this young woman as she struggles with her sense of propriety and respectability coupled with her mindless conviction that her respectable marriage is really all she could possibly want — and the compulsion to go to the man who loves her deeply and provides her with the excitement and deep feelings she has never previously allowed herself to feel. We have one of the early suggestions, before Freud, that there are unconscious urges that fight against reason and habit and which compel us in directions we would really rather not take.

David Hume once said that reason is the slave of the passions and Chekhov seems to be presenting us with a test case that demonstrates this profound truth. We might want to think that we can be directed by reason and what we think is the right thing to do — and we may even spend our lives trying to follow that path. But at times there are urges beneath the conscious level that draw us in directions we find repugnant. The struggle was studied in depth by Immanuel Kant who insisted that the right thing is always to follow one’s sense of duty, as dictated by reason, and fight against inclination. But as Chekhov suggests it is sometimes not quite that simple. Fight as we might, the inclinations are often stronger and do not allow reason to rule. Sometimes we do what we really (unconsciously) want to do rather than what we ought to do, despite the fact that we know it is wrong.

Long ago Socrates was convinced that if we knew what was the right thing to do, we would do it. But he had no clear notion of what we now call “will” and he doesn’t seem to have been fully aware of the battle that goes on inside us when we fight against inclinations that we might regard as “vile” and “shameless.” Aristotle faulted Socrates for his simplistic take on this issue. But I don’t think either Aristotle or Kant gave the struggle full measure. Chekhov did, and in this very short story, a mere fifteen pages long,  he makes it clear that at times we simply cannot muster the “willpower” to do the right thing, much as we might think we want to.


Good Fortune

In reading a collection of short stories by Anton Chekhov I have noticed a number of recurring themes. I have commented in a previous blog on one of them: the conviction on Chekhov’s part that in great measure a person’s good fortune is simply a matter of luck. Another theme that recurs is the conviction that one person’s good fortune is only possible as a result of the hard work, suffering, and even death of others less fortunate. This is a thought that may or may not be true, but it is almost certainly one that never crosses the minds of very wealthy folks, like the Koch brothers, for example, who have earned their millions by sending the less fortunate to work in their coal mines and oil fields to sweat and strain so the brothers can use their millions to live the high life and attempt to buy a government. Nor does it occur, I dare say, to John Schnatter the founder of Papa John’s pizza chain whose employees work for minimum wage and are cajoled into voting for the candidate of the owner’s choice at election time. And one must wonder how much time the descendants of Sam Walton have spent worrying about the thousands of exploited workers who sweat and toil so the Walton heirs can sleep on silk sheets and eat at the best restaurants. In any event, it does seem to me to be a thought worth considering and I have selected a couple of passages from two short stories by Chekhov to convey the rather persuasive way he presents his case.

In the first case, “Gooseberries,” the narrator has this reflection:

“obviously the happy man feels good only because the unhappy bear their burden silently, and without that silence happiness would not be possible. It’s a general hypnosis. At the door of every contented, happy man somebody should stand with a little hammer, constantly tapping, to remind him that unhappy people exist, that however happy he may be, sooner or later life will show him its claws, some calamity will befall him — illness, poverty, loss — and nobody will hear or see, just as he doesn’t hear or see others now. But there is nobody with a little hammer, the happy man lives on, and the petty cares of life stir him only slightly, as the wind stirs an aspen — and everything is fine.”

We hear the echoes of the notion that good fortune and happiness are a matter of luck, and as Chekhov says in another place, quoting Pushkin, “Dearer to us than a host of truths is an exalting illusion.” Indeed. But the notion that happiness for one person rides on the backs of misery for countless others is repeated in another of Chekhov’s stories, “On Official Business,” where the narrator, a coroner investigating the apparent suicide of an impoverished man, after a sleepless night in which he was haunted by dreams, reflects as follows:

“What [the men in his dream] sang had occurred to him before, but this thought had somehow sat behind other thoughts in his head and flashed timidly, like a distant lantern in misty weather. And he felt that this suicide and the peasant’s grievances lay in his conscience too; to be reconciled with the fact that these people, submissive to their lot, heaped on themselves what was heaviest and darkest in life — how terrible it was! To be reconciled with that, and to wish for oneself a bright, boisterous life among happy, contented people, and to dream constantly of such a life, meant to dream of new suicides by overworked, careworn people, or by weak neglected people, whom one sometimes talked about with vexation or mockery over dinner, but whom one did not go to help.”

At the end of the second of Chekhov’s stories above, the beadle,  a poor man, dressed in tatters,  who works hard to keep body and soul together, struggles on foot through the deep snows left by a blizzard that fell overnight and has kept the coroner and his doctor friend trapped at a friend’s house a mile out of town; he hopes to find them and assist them on their way back into town. He remarks with a mixture of relief and concern that “Folks are very worried, the kids are crying . . . .We thought you’d gone back to [Moscow], Your Honor. For God’s sake, take pity on us, dear benefactors. . . ”  But, as Chekhov says with stinging irony, “The doctor and the coroner said nothing, got into the sleigh, and drove to Syrnya.” The beadle, of course, will walk back to town through the deep snow. No thanks, no tip. He doesn’t really expect any. After a night of soul-searching on the coroner’s part, it’s back to business as usual.

Indeed it is a truth that should challenge our cherished illusions that those who are careworn and suffer in this culture are dismissed “over dinner” by the contented fat-cats as lazy and shiftless. And yet it is precisely those people, struggling to keep their heads above the poverty level, who make the easy life possible for the fat-cats.

Poverty and Prison

One of the most insidious falsehoods out there is that the wealthy have earned their wealth and the poor deserve their poverty. The poor, it is commonly said (by the rich), are lazy and unmotivated: if they really wanted to they could apply themselves and be off the dole. This sort of reasoning is known as “rationalization” and is frequently used to attempt to justify the reduction in social programs that help those most in need — as though “need” is something people bring on themselves. Nothing could be further from the truth as a brief passage in Anton Chekhov’s brilliant short story “Ward No.6” tells us. In that story the young Ivan Dmitrich has just seen a couple of prisoners pass on the streets in irons accompanied by soldiers taking them back to their prison cells. He reflects as follows:

“Not for nothing has age-old popular experience taught us that against poverty and prison there is no guarantee. And a judicial error, given present-day court procedures, was very possible, and it would be no wonder if it happened. Those who take an official business-like attitude toward other people’s suffering, like judges, policemen, doctors, from force of habit, as time goes by, become callous to such a degree that they would be unable to treat their clients otherwise than formally even if they wanted to; in this respect they are no different from the peasant who slaughters sheep and calves in his backyard without noticing the blood. With this formal, heartless attitude toward the person, a judge needs only one thing to deprive an innocent man of all his property rights and sentence him to hard labor: time. Only the time to observe certain formalities, for which the judge is paid a salary, and after that — it is all over. Then go looking for justice and protection . . .  And is it not ridiculous to think of justice when society greets all violence as a reasonable and expedient necessity, and any act of mercy — an acquittal, for instance — provokes a great outburst of dissatisfied, vengeful feeling?”

These truths are coming home to growing numbers of people in this country in this economy as a recent study has shown — focusing on the plight of a great many young people who will doubtless soon either be in prison or regarded as ne’er-do-wells by those who are comfortably off:

WASHINGTON (AP) — Almost 6 million young people are neither in school nor working, according to a study released Monday.

That’s almost 15 percent of those aged 16 to 24 who have neither desk nor job, according to The Opportunity Nation coalition, which wrote the report.

Other studies have shown that idle young adults are missing out on a window to build skills they will need later in life or use the knowledge they acquired in college. Without those experiences, they are less likely to command higher salaries and more likely to be an economic drain on their communities.

“This is not a group that we can write off. They just need a chance,” said Mark Edwards, executive director of the coalition of businesses, advocacy groups, policy experts and nonprofit organizations dedicated to increasing economic mobility. “The tendency is to see them as lost souls and see them as unsavable. They are not.”

But changing the dynamic is not going to be easy.

The coalition also finds that 49 states have seen an increase in the number of families living in poverty and 45 states have seen household median incomes fall in the last year. The dour report underscores the challenges young adults face now and foretell challenges they are likely to face as they get older.

There is nothing quite so ugly as righteous indignation. When we think of those who are down and out it might be well if we were a bit less smug about their condition and recall that there but for the grace of God might go any one of us. As the middle class disappears into the impoverished class the notion that those people deserve their fate because of a failure on their part is absurd; we might think along with Ivan here that so much of what happens to each one of us is a matter of pure chance and the question of whether we deserve our wealth or our poverty is moot at best. Sometimes shit just happens, as growing numbers of people are learning every day.

Corporate Takeover?

It is sad that our constitution, designed as it is to curb power by balancing the three branches of government, is helpless to curb the greatest power of all: the corporations. It’s not surprising though, given the fact that corporations were in their infancy in the eighteenth century. A century later Henry Adams was hoping that the Grant administration could reform government and modify what Adams saw as an already antiquated document. But even Adams was not fully aware of the power of the corporations and the corrosive effects they would have on the moral framework of this country. He was concerned, however.

Readers of these blogs know that I am no friend of corporations, for the reasons suggested above. But I am also a tireless defender of education and the need to correctly perceive the role education must play if this culture — and indeed civilization itself — is to survive. But we are now told that in Florida there is a movement by the corporations [“for-profit companies”] to make inroads into education in that state — after already pushing through a similar law in California. A recent blurb tells us that in Florida a proposed law

“. . . creates a ‘parent trigger’ where a majority of parents of students in a low-performing school can sign petitions forcing the local school board to implement a turnaround option, including turning the school over to a for-profit company or a charter run by an out-of-state board. Critics say that companies could employ paid petition gatherers to persuade concerned but uninformed parents to pull the trigger.”

What this means, of course, is that if this law passes these companies can take the inside track and determine future curriculum development in the schools to promote their own agenda. This is not to say this will inevitably happen, but history suggests that it is likely. And the curriculum will almost certainly be geared toward turning out young people who will be unable to do much of anything except oil the wheels of industry and commerce at the command of those above them on the corporate ladder.

This is already happening, to a degree, as our schools fall deeper and deeper into the trap of vocationalism and gear the studies of our kids toward jobs and away from heightened critical skills. If the corporations are in a position to push their own agenda, however, it could get much worse. To be sure, the temptation is great at this time of tight budgets to welcome the offer from “for-profit companies” to lend a hand. But as Chekhov warned, it is best to take a long spoon when you sup with the devil. I would advise that we refuse the invitation altogether.

This is not conspiracy theory, though one finds himself drawn in that direction more and more as he grows older. But it is a warning that large businesses are focused on one thing and one thing only: profits. People do not matter. Nor does the environment. Certainly the healthy intellectual growth of our children doesn’t matter.  What matters is “the bottom line.” And inviting companies into our schools is a blunder we must guard against — whether we suspect their motives or not. The schools at every level should be self-determined  — as we have seen in the case of Finland which has the most successful education system in the world at present. The attempt by any outside agency, whether it is certification agencies or (especially) corporations pushing for “Parent Empowerment Bills,” must be resisted by all of those who care about the education of our young.

If it’s not already too late, the survival of this Republic depends on educated citizens, not mindless company drones. Let us hope that Florida has enough sense to refuse to pass this proposed new law.