Sunday, April 30, 2006

Philosophy and fiction: "Othello" and "Billy Budd"

A.C. Grayling, professor of philosophy at Birkbeck College, University of London, has a smart review essay in the Financial Times. His subject is the Oxford University Press series of seven small volumes, each devoted to one of the Seven Deadly Sins. (To say that there are only "seven" such sins is inexact, as Simon Blackburn discusses in passing in his volume on Lust.)

In addition to Blackburn's volume, I've read Francine Prose's Gluttony and skimmed Phyllis Tickle's Greed. The latter didn't really grab me and I abandoned it; and, though I much admire the novels of hers that I've read, I didn't like Prose's Gluttony as much as Grayling does--probably because, as Prose and Grayling note, gluttony is so far from being a sin for most of us, most of the time.

The subject of this post comes from Grayling on Joseph Epstein's volume on Envy, which I plan to read very soon and not only because Epstein has been kind to the blog.
There are some nicely worked distinctions in Epstein’s absorbing account of envy, and some brilliant insights into Othello and Billy Budd. The difference between jealousy and envy, he observes, is that the former applies to what we have, the latter to what we do not have. Iago’s envy is more poisonous than Othello’s jealousy; the destructive power of John Claggart’s attitude to Billy Budd is relentless, hidden in what is apparently normal and unexceptionable: since envy’s “lodgement is in the heart and not the brain, no degree of intellect supplies a guarantee against it”. At the end, when Budd kills Claggart because he cannot speak to defend himself against Claggart’s lie, the act has the proper inevitability of tragedy. These are wonderfully telling points.

That's more insightful than--though maybe not as much fun as--what Orson Welles reportedly said to Warren Beatty: "Jealousy is the seasickness of emotions. You think you're going to die, and everyone else thinks it's funny."

If Grayling can sell Envy to me, let me join him in recommending Lust to you. Blackburn is a terrific writer, that rare philosopher who can explain his subject to the amateur. From his volume you'll learn something about art and philosophy as well as how to think like a philosopher. Moreover:

Getting [lust] right means unpiecing the various confusions that anxiety and piety have introduced into the subject. At the outset Blackburn acutely observes that the concepts of lust and excess have to disentangle: “We can no more criticise lust because it gets out of hand, than we can criticise hunger because it can lead to gluttony, or thirst because it can lead to drunkenness.”

For other posts on "philosophy and fiction" click here, here, and here.

--Marshal Zeringue