Farnam Street helps you make better decisions, innovate, and avoid stupidity.
With over 400,000 monthly readers and more than 93,000 subscribers to our popular weekly digest, we've become an online intellectual hub.
Farnam Street helps you make better decisions, innovate, and avoid stupidity.
With over 400,000 monthly readers and more than 93,000 subscribers to our popular weekly digest, we've become an online intellectual hub.
Every two weeks, from 2007 to 2011, Yann Martel sent a book to then Prime Minister of Canada, Stephen Harper. Each book was accompanied by a letter telling the PM why he might enjoy that particular selection. Martel, author of Life of Pi and the recently released The High Mountains of Portugal, strongly believes that “if you want to lead effectively, you must read widely”, and by widely, he means you must read literature.
My argument is that literature – as opposed to factual non-fiction – is an essential element to a deeply thinking, fully feeling mind in our complex twenty-first century world. A mind not informed by the thoughtful product that is the novel, the play, the poem, will be capable perhaps of administering the affairs of a people, maintaining the status quo, but not of truly leading that people. To lead effectively requires the capacity both to understand how things are and to dream how things might be, and nothing so displays that kind of understanding and dreaming as literature does.
Martel says that fiction has a more ‘universal resonance’ than non-fiction. Non-fiction has the advantage of being able to cover a specific topic in depth, but does not have the same broad appeal that fiction does.
A novel is about Life itself, whereas a history remains about a specific instance of Life. A great Russian novel…will always have a more universal resonance than a great history of Russia; you will think of the first as being about you on some level, whereas the second is about someone else.
Given the slightly disingenuous tone of Martel’s letters, it seems unlikely that he expected Harper – who never responded personally – to enter into a literary discourse with him. In his own words, Martel was using books as “political bullets and grenades”. He wanted to convey to the Prime Minister that the Arts are more than just entertainment; they are the core elements of civilization.
The value of 101 Letters to a Prime Minister lies in Martel’s insightful commentary on the books and their authors. Two things I am confident in saying: this compendium includes books you will not have heard of, and, your ‘to read’ list will grow after reading it.
Most of the works selected are under 200 pages – leaders are busy people – and it’s hard to imagine a more diverse selection of books. Along with the authors you’d expect to see – Shakespeare, Hemingway, Camus, Voltaire – are quite a few surprises. And not all of them are books Martel liked. He read Fictions by Borges twice and didn’t like it either time, but he encourages others to do the same.
By so doing one avoids the possible pitfall of autodidacts, who risk shaping their reading to suit their limitations, thereby increasing those limitations. The advantage of structured learning, at the various schools available at all ages of one’s life, is that one must measure one’s intellect against systems of ideas that have been developed over centuries. One’s mind is thus confronted with unsuspected new ideas.
Which is to say that one learns, one is shaped, as much by the books that one has liked as by those that one has disliked.
The books chosen by Martel include novels, plays, poetry, and philosophical works, but it’s not only classic literature. Ever heard of The Virgin Secretary’s Impossible Boss? Probably not. But you’ve likely heard of the brand. Over 6 billion Harlequin romance novels have been sold. Martel acknowledges that they’re poorly-written, silly, unrealistic and escapist, but says they provide readers with emotional satisfaction, “an escape from the harsh realities of life into a glamorous world populated by rich, beautiful people where a happy ending is guaranteed”.
Any book – trash to classic – makes us live the life of another person, injects us with the wisdom and folly of their years. When we’ve read the last page of a book, we know more, either in the form of raw knowledge – the name of a gun, perhaps – or in the form of greater understanding. The worth of these vicarious lives is not to be underestimated. There’s nothing sadder – or sometimes more dangerous – than the person who has lived only his or her single, narrow life, unenlightened by the experience, real or invented, of others.
It is this ability of Martel’s to see, and convey to the reader, the value of a very eclectic collection of reading material that makes his book such a pleasure to read.
Martel sends Harper several picture books – The Mysteries of Harris Burdick, Imagine a Day, Where the Wild Things Are and In the Night Kitchen – as well as some books for older children – The Brothers Lionheart, Read All About It! and Charlotte’s Web.
The fundamental role of children’s literature is to encourage children to use their imagination…If the expandable imagination of a child’s mind is not expanded, then it will shrink all the more, harden all the more, when that child grows up. The consequence is more dire than simply an adult with a dull, narrow mind. Such an adult is also less useful to society because he or she will be incapable of coming up with the new ideas and new solutions that society needs. A skill is a narrow focus of knowledge, a single card in a deck. Creativity is the hand that plays the cards.
Even with a seemingly straightforward picture book, there can be more than meets the eye.
Look at the illustrations of In the Night Kitchen. Who do the cooks with their narrow moustaches remind you of? What then might it mean when Mickey escapes the batter and floats away from the oven? In other words, I would suggest that you not just read these books (and aloud, even better), but imagine them.
Maus is a masterpiece. Spiegelman tells his story, or, more accurately, the story of his mother and father, in a bold and radical way. It’s not just that he takes the graphic form, thought perhaps by some to be a medium only for children, to new artistic heights by taking on such a momentous topic as exterminationist genocide. It’s more than that. It’s how he tells the story. You will see. The narrative agility and ease of it. And how the frames speak large. Some, small though they are, and in black and white, have an impact that one would think possible only with large paintings or shots from a movie.
It’s brilliant. It so takes you in, it so rips you apart. From there you must make your own tricky way back again to what it means to be human.
Not something you might expect a Man Booker prize-winning author to send to a Prime Minister, but Martel gets to the heart of what erotica offers in describing Anaïs Nin’s Artists and Models:
Clothes are the commonest trappings of vanity. When we are naked, we are honest. That is the essential quality of these lustful stories of Nin, embellished or wholly invented though they may be: their honesty. They say: this is part of who we are – deny it, and you are denying yourself.
Read the Bhagavad Gita in a moment of stillness and with an open heart, and it will change you. It is a majestic text, elevated and elevating. Like Arjuna, you will emerge from this dialogue with Krishna wiser and more serene, ready for action but filled with inner peace and loving-kindness.
Om shanti (peace be with you), as they say in India.
Kafka introduced to our age a feeling that hasn’t left us yet: angst. …. The dysfunctional side of the twentieth century, the dread that comes from mindless work, from constant, grinding, petty regulation, the dread that comes from the greyness of urban, capitalist existence, where each one of us is no more than a lonely cog in a machine, this was what Kafka revealed. Are we done with these concerns? Have we worked our way out of anxiety, isolation and alienation? Alas, I think not. Kafka still speaks to us.
Tolstoy was unregulated. He lived in a manner unbridled and unblinkered. He took it all in. He was supremely complex. And so there was much of life in his long life, life good and bad, wise and unwise, happy and unhappy. Thus the interest of his writings, because of their extraordinary existential breadth. If the earth could gather itself up, could bring together everything upon it, all men, women and children, every plant and animal, every mountain and valley, every plain and ocean, and twist itself into a fine point, and at that fine point grasp a pen, and with that pen begin to write, it would write like Tolstoy.
So though limited by class and by sex, Jane Austen was able to transcend these limitations. Her novels are marvels of wit and perspicacity, and in them she examined her society with such fresh and engaging realism that the English novel was durably changed.
The final work Martel sends to Harper is In Search of Lost Time by Marcel Proust. At 4,347 pages, it breaks the ‘under 200 pages’ rule by quite a wide margin, and is also the only book Martel hadn’t read before sending. He sends it as a commitment to read it himself one day.
So why did I never take on Proust’s masterpiece? I suppose for the same reason that many books are left unread, a mixture of fear and slothfulness, fear that I wouldn’t understand the work and unwillingness to spend so much intellectual energy reading all those pages. But as you and I both know, fear and slothfulness lead nowhere. Great achievements only come through courage and hard work.
101 Letters to a Prime Minister is a worthwhile addition to the bibliophile’s bookshelf.
If one listens to the faintest but constant suggestions of his genius, which are certainly true, he sees not to what extremes, or even insanity, it may lead him; and yet that way, as he grows more resolute and faithful, his road lies. The faintest assured objection which one healthy man feels will at length prevail over the arguments and customs of mankind. No man ever followed his genius till it misled him. Though the result were bodily weakness, yet perhaps no one can say that the consequences were to be regretted, for these were a life in conformity to higher principles. If the day and the night are such that you greet them with joy, and life emits a fragrance like flowers and sweet-scented herbs, is more elastic, more starry, more immortal — that is your success. All nature is your congratulation, and you have cause momentarily to bless yourself. The greatest gains and values are farthest from being appreciated. We easily come to doubt if they exist. We soon forget them. They are the highest reality. Perhaps the facts most astounding and most real are never communicated by man to man. The true harvest of my daily life is somewhat as intangible and indescribable as the tints of morning or evening. It is a little star-dust caught, a segment of the rainbow which I have clutched.
Our whole life is startlingly moral. There is never an instant’s truce between virtue and vice. Goodness is the only investment that never fails.
A bit later he writes, in perhaps one of the most important passages in the book,
I learned this, at least, by my experiment: that if one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavors to live the life which he has imagined, he will meet with a success unexpected in common hours. He will put some things behind, will pass an invisible boundary; new, universal, and more liberal laws will begin to establish themselves around and within him; or the old laws be expanded, and interpreted in his favor in a more liberal sense, and he will live with the license of a higher order of beings. In proportion as he simplifies his life, the laws of the universe will appear less complex, and solitude will not be solitude, nor poverty poverty, nor weakness weakness. If you have built castles in the air, your work need not be lost; that is where they should be. Now put the foundations under them.
And finally …
Why should we be in such desperate haste to succeed and in such desperate enterprises? If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away. It is not important that he should mature as soon as an apple tree or an oak. Shall he turn his spring into summer? If the condition of things which we were made for is not yet, what were any reality which we can substitute? We will not be shipwrecked on a vain reality.
Thoreau moved into a cabin he built by Walden Pond to extricate himself from social life and surround himself with the simplicity of nature. The book is a collection of his insights on a range of topics gained over the two years and a few months he spent there.
Here is some of what he had to say on reading:
With a little more deliberation in the choice of their pursuits, all men would perhaps become essentially students and observers, for certainly their nature and destiny are interesting to all alike. In accumulating property for ourselves or our posterity, in founding a family or a state, or acquiring fame even, we are mortal; but in dealing with truth we are immortal, and need fear no change nor accident.
The seclusion of Walden offered an opportunity for serious reading.
My residence was more favorable, not only to thought, but to serious reading, than a university; and though I was beyond the range of the ordinary circulating library, I had more than ever come within the influence of those books which circulate round the world, whose sentences were first written on bark, and are now merely copied from time to time on to linen paper. … I kept Homer’s Iliad on my table through the summer, though I looked at his page only now and then. Incessant labor with my hands, at first, for I had my house to finish and my beans to hoe at the same time, made more study impossible. Yet I sustained myself by the prospect of such reading in future. I read one or two shallow books of travel in the intervals of my work, till that employment made me ashamed of myself, and I asked where it was then that I lived.
It’s the labour of reading that makes it worthwhile.
The student may read Homer or Æschylus in the Greek without danger of dissipation or luxuriousness, for it implies that he in some measure emulate their heroes, and consecrate morning hours to their pages. The heroic books, even if printed in the character of our mother tongue, will always be in a language dead to degenerate times; and we must laboriously seek the meaning of each word and line, conjecturing a larger sense than common use permits out of what wisdom and valor and generosity we have. The modern cheap and fertile press, with all its translations, has done little to bring us nearer to the heroic writers of antiquity.
The classics are the noblest thoughts and require training.
Men sometimes speak as if the study of the classics would at length make way for more modern and practical studies; but the adventurous student will always study classics, in whatever language they may be written and however ancient they may be. For what are the classics but the noblest recorded thoughts of man? They are the only oracles which are not decayed, and there are such answers to the most modern inquiry in them as Delphi and Dodona never gave. We might as well omit to study Nature because she is old. To read well, that is, to read true books in a true spirit, is a noble exercise, and one that will task the reader more than any exercise which the customs of the day esteem. It requires a training such as the athletes underwent, the steady intention almost of the whole life to this object. Books must be read as deliberately and reservedly as they were written.
The work of art nearest to life itself …
What is called eloquence in the forum is commonly found to be rhetoric in the study. The orator yields to the inspiration of a transient occasion, and speaks to the mob before him, to those who can hear him; but the writer, whose more equable life is his occasion, and who would be distracted by the event and the crowd which inspire the orator, speaks to the intellect and health of mankind, to all in any age who can understand him.
No wonder that Alexander carried the Iliad with him on his expeditions in a precious casket. A written word is the choicest of relics. It is something at once more intimate with us and more universal than any other work of art. It is the work of art nearest to life itself.
Books are the wealth of the world …
Books are the treasured wealth of the world and the fit inheritance of generations and nations. Books, the oldest and the best, stand naturally and rightfully on the shelves of every cottage. They have no cause of their own to plead, but while they enlighten and sustain the reader his common sense will not refuse them. Their authors are a natural and irresistible aristocracy in every society, and, more than kings or emperors, exert an influence on mankind.
Most people don’t know how to read a book, a point that Thoreau echos:
The works of the great poets have never yet been read by mankind, for only great poets can read them. They have only been read as the multitude read the stars, at most astrologically, not astronomically. Most men have learned to read to serve a paltry convenience, as they have learned to cipher in order to keep accounts and not be cheated in trade; but of reading as a noble intellectual exercise they know little or nothing; yet this only is reading, in a high sense, not that which lulls us as a luxury and suffers the nobler faculties to sleep the while, but what we have to stand on tip-toe to read and devote our most alert and wakeful hours to.
On the connection between books and culture …
The best books are not read even by those who are called good readers. What does our Concord culture amount to? There is in this town, with a very few exceptions, no taste for the best or for very good books even in English literature, whose words all can read and spell. Even the college-bred and so-called liberally educated men here and elsewhere have really little or no acquaintance with the English classics; and as for the recorded wisdom of mankind, the ancient classics and Bibles, which are accessible to all who will know of them, there are the feeblest efforts anywhere made to become acquainted with them.
And one of my favorite passages on the two types of illiterateness:
We are underbred and low-lived and illiterate; and in this respect I confess I do not make any very broad distinction between the illiterateness of my townsman who cannot read at all and the illiterateness of him who has learned to read only what is for children and feeble intellects.
It is not all books that are as dull as their readers. There are probably words addressed to our condition exactly, which, if we could really hear and understand, would be more salutary than the morning or the spring to our lives, and possibly put a new aspect on the face of things for us. How many a man has dated a new era in his life from the reading of a book! The book exists for us, perchance, which will explain our miracles and reveal new ones.
We spend more on our bodies than our minds.
We boast that we belong to the Nineteenth Century and are making the most rapid strides of any nation. But consider how little this village does for its own culture. I do not wish to flatter my townsmen, nor to be flattered by them, for that will not advance either of us. We need to be provoked—goaded like oxen, as we are, into a trot. We have a comparatively decent system of common schools, schools for infants only; but excepting the half-starved Lyceum in the winter, and latterly the puny beginning of a library suggested by the State, no school for ourselves. We spend more on almost any article of bodily aliment or ailment than on our mental aliment.
Walden is a classic for a reason.
“We are each a river with a particular abiding character,
but we show radically different aspects of our self
according to the territory through which we travel.”
The most difficult of David Whyte’s three marriages, found in The Three Marriages: Reimagining Work, Self and Relationship, is the marriage to the self, which lies beneath both the marriages of work and relationships.
Work, Self and Relationships: Together these form The Three Marriages.
What is heart-breaking and difficult about this inner self that flirted, enticed, spent time with and eventually committed to a person or a career is that it is not a stationary entity; an immovable foundation; it moves and changes and surprises us as much as anything in the outer world to which it wants to commit.
In the midst of a life where we work hard to put bread on the table and foster a relationship, we often neglect “the necessary internal skills which help us pursue, come to know, and then sustain a marriage with the person we find on the inside.”
Neglecting this internal marriage, we can easily make ourselves a hostage to the externals of work and the demands of relationship. We find ourselves unable to move in these outer marriages because we have no inner foundation from which to step out with a firm persuasion. It is as if, absent a loving relationship with this inner representation of our self, we fling ourselves in all directions in our outer lives, looking for love in all the wrong places.
If we are involved in the outer world in ways that betray our conscience or deeply held beliefs, then even simple internal questions can become very difficult to ask. As if we intuit that drinking from the well will clear our eyesight and help us see what is real in the outer world and that once we have built that outer solid wall, brick by brick over long years through equally long effort, the gift of seeing that reality is the last gift in the world that we want.
We can easily become afraid of the internal questions and the silences that illuminate them — which is why of the three marriages the marriage to oneself is the hardest.
The act of stopping can be the act of facing something we have kept hidden from ourselves for a very long time.
In a world that doesn’t sleep, where we are bombarded from morning to night, this is the most difficult marriage.
To the outward striver— that is, most of us— it can seem as if this internal marriage is asking for a renunciation of the two outer marriages. Feeling this can come as almost a relief, a way out, for in the name of our many responsibilities and duties, we can use it as the perfect excuse not to look inside at all, feeling as if our outer world will fall apart if we spend any time looking for the person who exists at the intersection of all these outer commitments.
The Need for Silence
All of our great contemplative traditions advocate the necessity for silence in an individual life: first, for gaining a sense of discernment amid the noise and haste, second, as a basic building block of individual happiness, and third, to let this other all-seeing identity come to life and find its voice inside us.
Equanimity, in the Buddhist tradition, roughly translates into “to be equal to things, to be large enough for the drama in which we find ourselves.”
Almost all of our traditions of instruction in prayer, meditation or silence, be they Catholic, Buddhist or Muslim advocate seclusion or withdrawal as a first step in creating this equanimity. Small wonder we feel it goes against everything we need to do on the outside to keep our outer commitments together. Intimate relationships seem to demand endless talking and passing remarks; work calls for endless meetings, phone calls and exhortations. In the two outer marriages (work and relationships) it seems as if everything real comes from initiating something new. In the inner world we intuit something different and more difficult. It can be disconcerting or even distressing to find that this third marriage; this internal marriage, calls for a kind of cessation, a stopping, a fierce form of attention that attempts to look at where all this doing arises from.
For the busy, Whyte argues, it is nearly impossible to stop and read the following:
In the beginning of heaven and earth
There were no words,
Words came out of the womb of matter
And whether a man dispassionately
Sees to the core of life
Or passionately sees the surface
The core and the surface
Are essentially the same,
Words making them seem different
Only to express appearance.
If name be needed, wonder names them both:
From wonder into wonder
Tao Te Ching (translation by Witter Bynner)
In an argument reminiscent of the one I made in my webinar on being more productive, Whyte says:
“Thank you,” we say, “but I don’t have time. Please give it to me in three bullet points that I can look at later, when I get a moment, when I retire, when I’m on my deathbed or even when I’m actually dead, surely, then, there’ll be time enough to spare.” Trying to be equal to Lao Tzu’s opening remarks in the Tao Te Ching when we have no practice with silence and the revelations that arise from that spacious sense of reality can be like a novice violinist trying to play the opening notes of a Bach concerto. We can be so overwhelmed by the grandeur of the piece that we give up on our beginning scales.
The third marriage to the internal self seems to be to someone or something that in many ways seems even less open to coercion or sheer willpower than an actual marriage or a real job. Not only does this internal marriage seem to operate under rules different from those of the other two outer contracts but it also seems to be connected to the big; we might even say unbearable, questions of existence that scare us half to death and for which we have no easy answer. Like a skittish single unable to commit to the consequences of a full relationship, we turn away from questions that flower from solitude and quiet.
The marriage with our self is the most difficult. It’s “connected to the great questions of life that refuse to go away.” In our world of non-stop busyness, the cracks of silence that open can reveal an unfamiliar character. Developing this inner relationship, “we see not only the truth of our present circumstances and a way forward but we also realize how short our stay is on this earth.”
This is where we live. This is where we die.
The sudden absence of our partner waits for us. The end of our work or our retirement waits. The hospital bed waits. Right now, in some obscure medical appliance company in a corner of a bleak industrial estate, the very bed on which we will lie, trying to get the great perspective, is perhaps being manufactured as we read. We don’t want to know, of course, but all our great contemplative traditions concerned with this marriage, say, this willingness to look at the transitory nature of existence, are not pessimism but absolute realism: life is to be taken at the tilt, you do not have forever, and therefore why wait? Why wait, especially until your faculties have atrophied or your youth has gone, or you have lost confidence in your self? Why wait, to be, as the poet Mary Oliver says, “a bride to wonder”? To become a faithful and intimate companion to that initially formidable stranger you called your self?
Whyte’s book is a fascinating exploration of the three marriages that challenges our conventional notions of balance.
“Work-life balance is a concept that has us simply lashing ourselves on the back and working too hard in each of the three commitments. In the ensuing exhaustion we ultimately give up on one or more of them to gain an easier life.”
Few books I’ve read contain more marked passages and pages than David Whyte’s passionate and thought-provoking book, The Three Marriages: Reimagining Work, Self and Relationship, which argues we should stop thinking in terms of work-life balance.
The current understanding of work-life balance is too simplistic. People find it hard to balance work with family, family with self, because it might not be a question of balance. Some other dynamic is in play, something to do with a very human attempt at happiness that does not quantify different parts of life and then set them against one another. We are collectively exhausted because of our inability to hold competing parts of ourselves together in a more integrated way.
Whyte argues that we come to a sense of meaning and belonging “only through long periods of exile and loneliness.”
Interestingly, we belong to life as much through our sense that it is all impossible, as we do through the sense that we will accomplish everything we have set out to do. This sense of belonging and not belonging is lived out by most people through three principal dynamics: first, through relationship to other people and other living things (particularly and very personally, to one other living, breathing person in relationship or marriage); second, through work; and third, through an understanding of what it means to be themselves, discrete individuals alive and seemingly separate from everyone and everything else.
These are the three marriages, of Work, Self and Other.
These three lifelong pursuits, Whyte believes, “involve vows made either consciously or unconsciously.” Neglecting any one of these “impoverishes them all” because they are not mutually distinct but rather “different expressions of the way each individual belongs to the world.” Our flirtation with each differs and yet we are left to inter-weave the vows into a cohesive person, consciously or unconsciously.
Whyte’s premise is also his conclusion:
We should stop thinking in terms of work-life balance. Work-life balance is a concept that has us simply lashing ourselves on the back and working too hard in each of the three commitments. In the ensuing exhaustion we ultimately give up on one or more of them to gain an easier life.
… [E]ach of these marriages is, at its heart, nonnegotiable; that we should give up the attempt to balance one marriage against another, of, for instance, taking away from work to give more time to a partner, or vice versa, and start thinking of each marriage conversing with, questioning or emboldening the other two. … (once we understand they are not negotiable) we can start to realign our understanding and our efforts away from trading and bartering parts of ourselves as if they were salable commodities and more toward finding a central conversation that can hold all of these three marriages together.
Perhaps this resonates with me more than most because I’ve always found the argument that we should live a balanced life lacking. At its heart this implies we should trade one aspect for another, compromising as we go. To me this trimming of excess in one area to prop up another serves to remove, not create, meaning.
The other argument that Whyte surfaces penetrates the fabric of our human needs: the constant tug of war between our social desires and our need for space. This is another area where we naturally try to find balance and in so doing compromise part of ourselves.
The Three Marriages: Reimagining Work, Self and Relationship “dispels the myth that we are predominately thinking creatures, who can, if we put our feet in all the right places, develop strategies that will make us the paragons of perfection we want to be, and instead, looks to a deeper, almost poetic perspective.”
One of the reasons that we deny the role of luck is that it acts as a cold counterbalance to the notion of hard work. At every stage in our lives we are taught that the best way to make our way in the world is by hard work, tenacity, and grit. And while I believe there is a lot of truth to this, it also causes some perverse consequences.
For instance, when we’re successful, we’re hesitant or even ashamed to admit that luck played a role because we somehow feel that diminishes what was under our control. Conversely, if we’re hit with bad luck, it’s culturally reinforced that that was our own fault. We’re led to believe that we’re responsible for outcomes not process, when in fact just the opposite is true.
We are culturally conditioned to deny the role of luck because of its impact on our search for meaning.
In How to Get Lucky, Max Gunther explains:
All American and European kids (and for all I know, Russian and Chinese kids, too) get the “tragic flaw” theory of great literature laid on them in high school or college. This theory holds that in Shakespeare’s tragedies or Dostoevski’s novels or the epic poems of Homer, the heroes and heroines always bring their troubles on themselves through some failing of character. Teachers and professors insist that this is so, and many generations of kids have been given the same choice: agree or flunk.
The fact is, however, that you have to look pretty hard to find those “tragic flaws” that supposedly are behind the tragic happenings. There is no good evidence that either Homer or Shakespeare, for example, bought this goofy theory. In the Iliad, much of what happens is brought about by the manipulations of the gods – in other words, by good and bad luck that the human characters have no control of. Shakespeare’s tragedies are similar. Hamlet opens with the hero in a fix because of events he had nothing to do with. It ends with nearly everybody dead by mistake – a blither of bloody blunders. It isn’t a play about tragic flaws. It is a play about bad luck.
Why do English professors deny it? A good answer was offered recently by Phyllis Rose, a professor of English at Wesleyan University and no fan of the “tragic flaw” notion. Students are taught that the character flaw is a necessary ingredient of tragedy, Professor Rose wrote in The New York Times: “If the hero or heroine didn’t have a flaw, it wouldn’t be tragic because it wouldn’t ‘mean’ anything. It would just be bad luck.”
She added, wryly, “To convince students that bad luck isn’t tragic must take some fancy teaching.” But that is what is taught, and most people seem to buy the notion. And now, we have uncovered yet another reason why the role of luck in human experience is so persistently denied. Luck isn’t “meaningful” enough. We yearn for life to have meaning. Acknowledging luck’s role takes half the meaning out of it.
This is the “tragic flaw” theory — nothing bad ever happens because of luck but rather because people deserve it.
How to Get Lucky goes on to explore 13 ways to improve your luck.