Archive for September, 2012

Cléophas’ Fiddle

In Chopin’s short story about a young girl who sells her caretaker’s fiddle, readers find a hint of irony in her inability to correctly assess the worth of the old fiddle. To her youthful gaze, the fiddle appears worthless; it is old, kept in a flannel bag, and does nothing to provide sustenance for herself or the other young ones. In an attempt to correct this situation, Fifine sells the fiddle and in return receives a much newer, glossier fiddle and more money than she can count. The irony occurs when readers realize that the new fiddle couldn’t come close to the worth of the old one. When Cléophas mentions the fiddle’s maker, an Italian man who died before the war (most likely one of the world wars) readers have an intimation that perhaps this fiddle is a priceless relic, one of the few remaining masterpieces built by Italian violin makers such as Stradivarius. In light of this, the old fiddle becomes irreplaceable, and, in this context, is not an object to be bought or sold for a few days worth of food. However, Fifine’s youthful understanding of value and worth do not take such a likelihood into account, and because she is more focused on her immediate needs and desires, she sells the fiddle with little forethought or questioning. Furthermore, readers can assume that Cléophas’ assessment of the fiddle’s worth went much deeper than its material value or physical rarity; for him, the instrument clearly has sentimental value, perhaps even a legacy to which he is connected by ownership. Readers can sense this when, upon learning that the old fiddle has been sold, he is so disheartened that he no longer has the desire to play music.

Men of Letters

In the article “Men of Letters,”, Voltaire posits that men of letters are peoplee who dedicate themselves not only to proper grammar and eloquence, but also to a wide range of studies, including philosophy, the sciences, and history. This leaves readers with the idea that men of letters are polymaths, or people who devote themselves not only to studying language, but to any number of topics. However, the purpose of these people is not merely to become literary scholars or polymaths, aimlessly seeking to gain more knowledge. When Voltaire writes “It is sometimes astonishing that what in the past upset the world, no longer troubles it today; for this we are indebted to the true men of letters,” readers find perhaps the most accurate description of this group. Their purpose, as Voltaire’s words indicate, is to advance the paradigm of humanity, to make accessible those ideas and concepts which were at one time deemed inappropriate for mass consumption. In this way, Voltaire is suggesting that it is the job of these men of letters to assist in raising the value of the ‘every-man,’ and to make available to him knowledge which will increase his understanding of the world around him. Voltaire writes that “The course of History is a hundred times more vast than it was for the ancients,” and in his terms, under the guidance of men of letters, the course of history will continue to expand before humanity.

Crusoe and the Cannibals

Upon Crusoe’s discovery of the cannibals with whom he shares the island, he begins a moral debate about whether or not it would be just to attack them. He first plots to kill them, but later decides instead to let God be their judge. This passage sparked my own internal debate about whether or not Crusoe had come to the ‘correct’ (or perhaps most moral) conclusion. Crusoe’s morality is based entirely in his religious beliefs, and after questioning his instinct to attack the complete ‘otherness’ that he encounters in the cannibals, he realizes that he is in no position to judge a culture that divine wisdom has allowed to exist. Crusoe’s deference to a spiritual authority at first struck me as a denial of what might be considered human nature; war, especially motivated by fear and a lack of understanding, seems to be a recurring theme in the history of humanity.  Crusoe solidifies his decision by stating that attacking the cannibals would be much like the Spaniard’s slaughter of the natives in America. This is where my thinking diverged from Crusoe’s (or rather, Defoe’s). Native Americans were not cannibals, and in fact, when confronted with cannibalism (as they were in Cabeza de Vaca’s narrative), found the practice to be completely abhorrent. The Spanish treatment of American natives was based entirely on greed and the fear of their ‘otherness,’ while Crusoe’s was based at least partially on survival and self defense. He is presented with the possibility of a kill or be killed situation, which leads him to plan for preemptive action. However, the spirituality and religious devotion he has cultivated in his many years on the island stay his hand.