This post is part of a series dedicated to Sherwood Anderson: Collected Stories, from The Library of America. “The Philosopher” comes from Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio. For an introduction to this series and for links to the other posts, please click here.
The philosopher of the title is another of Winesburg’s sad doctors, Doctor Parcival. When we meet him, he’s been in Winesburg for five years, having shown up drunk and abrasive. The doctor has few patients, so no one knows just how he gets by financially. Perhaps he was a robber or a murderer, two rumors the doctor himself keeps alive, obviously enjoying the role of the enigmatic stranger. Our physical description states there is something strange about his eyes, something that goes a ways in showing, if not explaining, the doctor’s secret past and — perhaps — the secret workings of his mind:
The lid of the left eye twitched; it fell down and snapped up; it was exactly as though the lid of the eye were a window shade and someone stood inside the doctor’s head playing with the cord.
For me, though, it is important to note that the shades are opening and shutting because “someone” — not the doctor — is inside the doctor’s head “playing with the cord.” Doctor Parcival is not a philosopher in full control of his mind.
As we might guess, the one person in town Doctor Parcival cares to talk to is the young George Willard. Indeed, he actively fosters a friendship with George because, he says, “I have a desire to make you admire me, that’s a fact.” In the midst of questioning why George, being the aspiring journalist, hasn’t looked into Parcival’s shadowy past, Parcival ends up telling George quite a bit about his actual past (and here we get some sense as to why Anderson chose to call this doctor Parcival). George learns that Parcival was training for the ministry, that Parcival’s father was long ago admitted into an insane asylum, that Parcival’s mother loved the other, brutal son more, though that son was always cruel.
And why is he telling George all of this?
“I want to fill you with hatred and contempt so that you will be a superior being,” he declared. “Look at my brother. There was a fellow, eh? He despised everyone, you see. You have no idea with what contempt he looked upon mother and me. And was he not our superior? You know he was.”
The story shifts from this kind of summary to the “adventure” Doctor Parcival has one day. Out in the street, a young girl has died, and people went about town clambering to all of the doctors. For some reason — perhaps because he hates being bothered, seeing it as a bit of persecution he must fight against with a bit of his own cruelty — Doctor Parcival refuses to go out. No one notices, and, indeed, the man “who had come up the stairway to summon him had hurried away without hearing the refusal.”
We’ve had moments already where we doubted Doctor Parcival’s mental capacity, but once he’s refused he goes into full paranoia. He imagines the citizens of Winesburg rising up against him, forming of mob, lynching him, though, again, no one even knows he failed to show up to attend to the already deceased girl.
In a mad rush to get his affairs in order before his demise, he tells George Willard he came to Winesburg solely to write a book, and he wants George Willard to finish it. The book has one central theme:
The idea is very simply, so simple that if you are not careful you will forget it. It is this — that everyone in the world is Christ and they are all crucified.
To be honest, I’ve never really grappled with “The Philosopher” before. For me, it lacks the immediate sense of loneliness and terror so prevalent in most of the other stories in Winesburg, Ohio, and Doctor Parcival just hasn’t been as interesting a character to me. I haven’t even given his book’s theme a lot of thought in the past. And actually, when finishing the story this time around I wasn’t tempted to dig in.
But, one of the pleasures of blogging this way is the temptation to force oneself to think about an issue one might otherwise dismiss. I’m still not a great fan of “The Philosopher,” but I have grown more fond of it as I’ve tried to reconcile Parcival’s goal to fill George with contempt and his view that everyone is Christ and is crucified. Obviously, there’s a lot more to Parcival’s torn up past, and what we have is a man who has always felt persecuted by those who should care — and yet (and this is an insight that really made me rethink my attitude towards this story) he still cares about them. He may even hate his mother and brother, but part of him, it seems to me, only wanted their care and protection. Recognizing that this made him weak, he tries to ensure George Willard will be strong, will be one of those who doesn’t care and, therefore, is always in the superior position.
And yet, how does this fit with Parcival’s idea that “everyone in the world is Christ and they are all crucified”? Does he really feel this way about his brother and mother? I think so. I think it’s there we find Parcival’s inherent sensitivity to others, something he’s been fighting against for decades. He, like the narrator in “The Book of the Grotesque,” recognizes that everyone is warped by something or other — cruelty may be the best way to fight against the effects of the relentless persecution of life itself.
Next up: Sherwood Anderson’s “Nobody Knows,” from Winesburg, Ohio.