In Chekhov’s stories, beautiful natural surroundings are often a setting for unnatural lives and ugly social conditions. This sets the stage for a reflection on the relationship between physical and spiritual needs. His story “The Student” suggests that material deprivation–whether it is the exhaustion of the apostle Peter or the poverty of the Russian peasant–can undermine the capacity for fidelity and cultivation. In “A Medical Case,” a young heiress is made physically ill by her guilty awareness of oppressive conditions in her family’s factories. Can art, science, and faith truly redeem the individual human spirit without first transforming its social environment?
In this story, there are two sisters: one introverted, frail, and bookish; the other dominant, opinionated, and politically active. In meeting them, an accomplished artist seems to be confronted with a dilemma. Should art subordinate itself to the project of creating a just society? Or should it focus on serving more spiritual needs? These questions make Chekhov’s “The House with the Mezzanine” an interesting meditation on the relationship between politics and the arts, and whether the windows of our proverbial dwellings are best used to illuminate a new path forward, or to articulate the beauty of the world as it is.
Dmitri Gurov does not take love seriously. His wife annoys him, long-term relationships scare him, and his love life consists of brief affairs with women he meets at vacation resorts. In Anna, he finds someone who appears to be the usual victim—traveling alone, tired of her husband, and unlikely to make any effective demands for intimacy, something that seems to be revealed in the diminutive portability of her traveling companion. This time, however, he has met a match too powerful for his predatory ambitions. When is love’s bite bigger than its bark? Wes & Erin discuss Anton Chekhov’s “The Lady with a Little Dog.”
Out of the darkness of the opening frames comes a supplicant— Buonasera the undertaker. He pleads for the justice that the American legal system denied him. As the camera draws back, we see the outline of a face, a hand… Don Corleone holds court at the confluence of loyalty and duress, generosity and calculation, power and fragility. It is not money, but friendship that he asks of Buonasera. Within and without the world of the film, can one consider Don Corleone a great man? Or does his moral code, like his favor, always hide a transaction? Wes & Erin give their analysis of Francis Ford Coppola’s 1972 film, “The Godfather.”
Alvy Singer is not, he tells us, a depressive character. It’s just that as a child he always worried that the expanding universe would one day break apart; and as an adult that romantic relationships must always fall apart. With Annie Hall, he thought he had finally found something that would last, in part because she could — like the audiences of Woody Allen — endure and make sense of his fragmented neuroticism: by finding it, on occasion, funny, or endearing, or even informative. While Annie’s patient, quirky fatalism does not prevent her from outgrowing Alvy and leaving him behind, the nostalgic and wistful frame of Allen’s film does have something to say about what helps keep love alive, and people connected.
On the moors of medieval Scotland, three witches hail the nobleman Macbeth as the future king—despite the fact that King Duncan is very much alive, and Macbeth is not in line to the throne. At the suggestion of power, Macbeth’s mind leaps to murder. Later, he fancies he sees a floating dagger leading him to Duncan, and after more bloodshed, believes he is haunted by the ghost of a friend. Is Macbeth merely a victim of divination, goaded by suggestion and his own imagination? To what extent is every ambition an imaginative act—and perhaps a form of prophecy? Wes & Erin discuss the Scottish Play: Shakespeare’s shortest tragedy, “Macbeth.”
W. H. Auden hated this poem. He called it the most dishonest he had ever written, and eventually had it excluded from collections of his poetry. And yet it quickly became one of his most popular poems. And after the attacks of September 11, it was published in several national newspapers and widely discussed. This might seem to be a strange result, given that the poem is not a call-to-arms, but an invitation to self-critique. What explains the enduring appeal of Auden’s September 1, 1939? Was he right to repudiate it? Wes & Erin discuss.
As war loomed in Europe, the poet W.H. Auden left Britain for the United States. One of the poems he wrote just before leaving is about the nature of human suffering—or as Auden puts it, the “human position” of suffering: for the most part, it happens invisibly, and the procession of ordinary life leaves it unacknowledged. Yet, the representation and transcendence of suffering are tasks important both to religion and the arts. Is suffering’s “human position” something that can be redeemed? Wes and Erin discuss Auden’s poem Musée des Beaux Arts.
It’s a romance that begins with a divorce. Lucy and Jerry Warriner suspect each other of affairs, so they file suit, battle for custody of their dog, see other people, and generally go wild. Despite the spectre of infidelities— real or imagined— Lucy and Jerry learn a surprising truth: that the only person they enjoy “fooling around with” is their spouse. How are all relationships a kind of performance? And how might finding a mate mean finding not just a co-star, but one’s best audience? Wes and Erin discuss the 1937 classic comedy of remarriage, “The Awful Truth.”
Hedda Gabler is not a fan of specialization: not in the professor she has married, and his esoteric scholarly interests; not in domesticity, and the specialized affections required by marriage and motherhood; not in any lover’s infatuated specialization in her; and perhaps not in the form of specialization arguably required by life itself, with its finite and confining possibilities. Is there any way, short of suicide, to transcend such limits? Wes & Erin discuss Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler.
Bill Budd is a beautiful man. Not just good looking, but exquisitely good natured, something that costs him no effort and has required no instruction. And yet it is ultimately his beautiful soul and good nature that get Billy killed. Wes & Erin discuss Herman Melville’s final and unfinished work of fiction, and whether a good heart and good intentions are more important than obedience to authority and adherence to civilized norms.
We all know this story, in part because it captures a period that will always have a special place in the American imagination. Prosperous and boozy, the Jazz Age seemed like one great party, held to celebrate the end of a terrible world war; the liberating promise of newly ubiquitous technologies, including electricity, the telephone, and the automobile; and a certain image of success as carefree, inexhaustibly gratifying, and available to all who try. And yet perhaps this fantasy is rooted in disillusionment, and a denial of inescapable social realities, including the impossibility of genuine social mobility. What do we mean when we talk about the American Dream? Is it realistic? Wes & Erin discuss F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Great Gatsby.”
John Cassavetes is known today as the father of American independent film, a pioneering writer, director, editor, actor who managed to make movies on his own terms, and has since inspired two generations of filmmakers. In his own day, however, he couldn’t catch a break–unappreciated and unseen by most of the public, lambasted by critics. But what contemporaries didn’t understand about Cassavetes’s movies may actually be his message. What can he teach us about authenticity and the ways in which we confront and avoid our own emotions? Wes & Erin discuss Cassavetes’s best-known film, 1974’s “A Woman Under the Influence.”
Benjamin Braddock is a little worried about his future. He’s a recent college graduate who moves back in with his upper-middle-class parents and feels smothered by their vapid, materialistic lifestyle. But he begins an affair with a woman from his parents’ circle… And then he falls in love with her daughter. Like Benjamin, we wonder what the future can and should hold for us. Can it be free of the negative trappings of our society and culture, of our parents’ influence, of the past? Wes and Erin discuss Mike Nichols’ 1967 film “The Graduate.”
Wes and Erin continue their discussion of W.B. Yeats’ “The Second Coming.” In Part 1, they analyzed the first stanza of the poem, in particular Yeats’ use of “gyre”; the meaning of the phrases “things fall apart” and “the center cannot hold”; and the conflict between aristocratic and revolutionary values. In Part 2, they discuss — with a little help from Nietzsche — the anti-redemption of the second stanza, and the meaning of Yeats’ vision of a “rough beast” slouching towards Bethlehem.
In 1919, the world seemed to have descended into anarchy. World War I had killed millions and profoundly altered the international order. Four empires, along with their aristocracies, had disintegrated. Russia was in a state of civil war, and Ireland was on the verge of its own. It’s these events that helped inspire William Butler Yeats’ poem “The Second Coming,” which famously tells us that “things fall apart,” that “the center cannot hold,” and that a new historical epoch is upon us. Just what rough beast is it that slouches, as Yeats has it, toward Bethlehem?
Do we owe parents our gratitude for our upbringing? What if they haven’t done such a great job? And anyway, perhaps we inevitably resent all the forces that have shaped the characters that confine and limit us. If so, the quest for filial gratitude is ultimately hopeless. It could even be a kind of madness: a foolish attempt to transcend the same formative forces that we resent in our parents, to be “unaccommodated,” free of the “plague of custom.” Wes and Erin discuss William Shakespeare’s “King Lear.”
L.B. Jefferies has the perfect girlfriend—beautiful, intelligent, wealthy—but too perfect, he insists, for marriage. And so he spends his time spying on the love lives of his neighbors, and ropes his girlfriend into this project as well. Which, strangely enough, turns out to be a really effective form of couples’ therapy. What’s the connection between voyeurism and what Jefferies calls “the intelligent way to approach marriage”? Wes and Erin discuss Alfred Hitchcock’s 1954 film “Rear Window.”
In this third and final installment of our series on Keats’s odes, we’re looking at “To Autumn,” the poet’s last major work before his death at the age of 25. Keats’s elegiac meditation on the season also serves as a metaphor for his favorite subject matter, artistic creation itself. What parallels does Keats find between art-making and the bounty, harvest, and barrenness of autumn? And what can the poem teach us about loss and our own mortality? Wes and Erin discuss these questions and more.
Second in our series on the odes of John Keats is “Ode to a Nightingale,” in which Keats imagines a journey into the realm of negative capability, a concept introduced in our previous episode on “Ode to a Grecian Urn.” Keats hears a nightingale’s song and it inspires him to ponder such questions as, what makes an ideal artist? How might we access the world of artistic creation? How does art unite humanity across the ages? Wes and Erin discuss whether artists, however inspired, can escape the anxieties of a potential audience.