Eugene O’Neill Writes Weird Stuff

Ten months into this Great Books reading program, we have completed more than 4,500 pages of reading and are still going strong. The works continue to increase in difficulty gradually, but we’re all big boys and girls and can get something out of an analytical reading of even the tough stuff.

Here are the readings for the upcoming week:

  1. The Lifted Veil” by George Eliot  (GGB Vol. 3, pp. 157-193)
  2. Pericles” by Plutarch (GBWW Vol. 13, pp. 121-141)
  3. A Letter Concerning Toleration” by John Locke (GBWW Vol. 33, pp. 1-22)
  4. Federalist #67-69 (GBWW Vol. 40, pp. 203-210; Antifederalist responses are here)
  5. An Anatomical Disquisition on the Motion of the Heart and Blood in Animals by William Harvey, Chapters VI-XI (GBWW Vol. 26, pp. 280-292)
  6. The Way Things Are (or On the Nature of Things) by Lucretius, Book VI (GBWW Vol. 11, pp. 77-91)

This will be the last week for Lucretius, and week two of three for Harvey. I’m picking up the pace on the Federalist in the hopes of finishing it by year’s end.

Here are some observations on last week’s readings:

  1. The Emperor Jones by Eugene O’Neill: Sigmund Freud, call your office. Jones has clearly cracked by Scene III. I would have liked to have seen more of a rise-and-fall trajectory in the plot, even though that probably wouldn’t have fit with what O’Neill was trying to do psychologically. This is probably the strangest play I have ever read. I’m not sure I could sit through a staging of this thing with those drums pounding throughout.
  2. “A Plea for Captain John Brown” by Henry David Thoreau: Did this turn anyone else’s stomach? Not only do we have the equating of an axe murderer with the Son of God, but we also have a number of misanthropic sentiments. Only half a dozen men have truly lived enough to be said to have died throughout history? No wonder he’s so sanguine about murder.
  3. “Letter to Herodotus” by Epicurus: I should have inferred it from Lucretius, but I had never realized that Epicurus blamed most of human anxiety on religion. His philosophy turns out to be just one more failed attempt to get from under the divine. That’s not to say I don’t find anything worthwhile in Epicurus’s thought. I appreciate his emphasis on moderation.
  4. Federalist #66: The impeachment power . . . surely one of the most unduly neglected provisions of the Constitution. Madison probably wouldn’t have bothered defending the provision had he known it would hardly ever be used.
  5. An Anatomical Disquisition on the Motion of the Heart and Blood in Animals by William Harvey, Introduction – Chapter V: After I got accustomed to a few unfamiliar terms, this reading went pretty smoothly. I appreciated the way Harvey showed respect for Galen and other earlier anatomists even as he disagreed with some of their theories. The description of Harvey’s careful observations was detailed but still accessible to the layman.
  6. The Way Things Are (or On the Nature of Things) by Lucretius, Book V: I guess moderns will forgive Lucretius for his Young Earth views as long as he insists that the gods didn’t make the world, but what about his insistence that the sun and moon are only as large as they appear to be to the naked eye? Or that all the species of animals sprang from the ground fully formed? The speculations about early man, on the other hand, sound like those of any run-of-the-mill Darwinist.

Temperatures dipped below 40 degrees here yesterday morning, and I’m loving it. This is prime sit-outside-the-coffee-shop-with-a-hot-drink-and-read weather. I’m going to do my best to stay on schedule; my wife’s due date is next week, and I could have an interruption at any time.

About Dr. J

I am Professor of Humanities at Faulkner University, where I chair the Department of Humanities and direct online M.A. and Ph.D. programs based on the Great Books of Western Civilization. I am also Associate Editor of the Journal of Faith and the Academy and a member of the faculty at Liberty Classroom.
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1 Response to Eugene O’Neill Writes Weird Stuff

  1. Jane says:

    O’Neill, The Emperor Jones: Understandably lauded for its experimental, surreal trip through the unconscious of a guilt-ridden tyrant, the work’s casting the main character as a black man referred to as “nigger” and speaking in dialect now makes it cringe-worthy. In a sad back-story to its onstage success in the 1920s, Charles Gilpin, the actor who originated the role of Brutus Jones, argued with O’Neill about his discomfort with the term “nigger” and electively omitted it in numerous performances. O’Neill refused to alter the script and replaced Gilpin with Paul Robeson. Gilpin never acted on Broadway again and succumbed to depression and alcoholism in 1930 at age 52.

    Thoreau, A Plea for Captain John Brown: This: “Suppose there is a society in this state that out of its own purse and magnanimity saves all the fugitive slaves that run to us, and protects our colored fellow citizens, and leaves the other work to the government, so called. Is not that government fast losing its occupation, and becoming contemptible to mankind? If private men are obliged to perform the offices of government, to protect the weak and dispense justice, then the government becomes only a hired man, or clerk, to perform menial or indifferent services… Such a government is losing its power and respectability as surely as water runs out of leaky vessel…. The same indignation that is said to have cleared the temple once will clear it again. The question is not about the weapon, but the spirit in which you use it.”

    Federalist #66: Following on Thoreau, here’s one weapon available to us: yet astounding that while impeachment proceedings were attempted against Clinton following the Monica Lewinsky debacle – hardly a threat to national security – Trump’s outrageous ineptitude and recklessness has so far gone unchallenged. Here’s hoping the midterm elections bring new reps who are willing to apply the safeguards of these provisions.

    Epicurus, Letter to Herodotus: Source material for Lucretius and early rationale for the benefits of cognitive therapy: “Wherefore we must pay attention to internal feelings and to external sensations in general and in particular, and to every immediate intuition in accordance with each of the standards of judgment. For if we pay attention to these, we shall rightly trace the causes whence arose our mental disturbance and fear, and by learning the true causes of celestial phenomena and all other occurrences that come to pass from time to time, we shall free ourselves from all which produces the utmost fear in other men.”

    Lucretius, On the Nature of Things, V: This chapter made me think of Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, which I recently saw again on the big screen. He pretty accurately traces evolution and natural selection, and nails the unfortunate tendency of mankind to apply knowledge toward the development of more atrocious modes of wielding power through wholesale slaughter.

    Harvey, The Motion of the Heart & Blood: Clearly a seminal anatomical work, yet awful to imagine the many vivisections of dogs and pigs that informed it.

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