The Revolution Will Be Drained

November 16, 2011

Nostalgic Realist School

Once again, I find myself reading a book that I have heard of for ages, but never got to:  Nikolai Chernyshevsky’s What Is to Be Done?  What indeed?  It was so influential that both Tolstoy and Lenin wrote pieces by the same name.  The introduction to my translation says that Notes from Underground is a sustained parody of the book and its ideas.  Basically, everyone was talking about it, and responding to it.  As the Dostoyevsky scholar, Joseph Frank, puts it:

If one were to ask for the title of the nineteenth-century Russian novel that has had the greatest influence on Russian society, …a non-Russian would choose among….Fathers and Sons, War and Peace, Crime and Punishment…No, the novel that can claim this honor with the most justice… What Is to Be Done?…  No work in modern literature, with the possible exception of Uncle’s Tom’s Cabin, can compete.

Unlike that American novel, another that took me time to get around to reading, and which I found to my surprise to be a stunningly powerful work, What Is to Be Done?  is simply awful as literature.  There’s no getting around it.  It’s clunky, talky, the characters are allegorical and speak in the most stilted way imaginable, and in addition, the author had to use ‘code’ to get by the censors of the Tsar.  The plot is a soap opera about idealistic young people who are, we gradually realize, members of a revolutionary movement, yet politics is not the focus of the book, but the liberation, legally and sexually, of women is.  Strange to think that this is the book that set the Bolsheviks in motion, but Lenin himself, besides his homage to the book’s title, energetically defended the novel against critics.

The book is also quite strange:  Chernyshevsky frequently indulges in meta-literary interludes, addressing the ‘dear reader,’ hinting at what’s to come, congratulating us for already knowing what’s to come, psychologizing his characters, and generally managing the action like a vaudeville impresario.  Yet, this was the book that led to the October Revolution!

The nihilistic revolutionaries of the story are pretty nice, wholesome, energetic, idealistic guys and gals, for the most part.  They just happen to be atheists and thoroughgoing materialists.  Chernyshevsky uses the story to espouse his theories of ‘rational egoism,’ which is a radical distillation of English utilitarianism:  all people act for advantage; there is no morality, there is only calculation of what one’s advantage is.  The same old rubbishman is motivated by two things: the desire for pleasure and the desire to avoid pain…  But because of the importance of the book, and, oddly, because it is chock-full of ideas, even if they are expressed in a wacky manner, it is, honestly, fascinating!

But, but, what’s this I find on page 216?  Something that lifts my spirits into the heavenly realm of drainage!  Here is the main character discoursing to his young wife on ‘agriculture’ and how to improve swampy wastelands:

Until very recently no one knew how to restore such fields to health; but now a method has been discovered.  It’s called ‘drainage’.  Excess water is channeled off into ditches, leaving only the required amount.

 The editor makes clear the real meaning of this ‘Aesopian’ language:

Russian radicals referred to mechanical processes such as drainage to indicate revolutionary means of change, and chemical processes to signify evolutionary change. Thus Chernyshevsky’s emphasis on drainage rather than on chemical improvement indicates his advocacy of revolution

I always knew that Drainage would serve The Revolution.  I will post more when I finish it.

Cloud of (Un)knowing

August 16, 2009


It’s rare that my quotidian work matches my philosophic preoccupations closely, but sometimes it happens.  The Union Station in Toronto has a train shed roof (above) that is a landmark.  The supporting framework (truss) is distinctive, and was a patented design, also used in Hoboken, NJ.

Engineers like to work from plans, drawings, diagrams, like the one below.  Clean, precise, accurate.  Unambiguous…we think.  Problem was, there were no such drawings in existence.  To create them from hand measurements – a huge and expensive task.  Enter the laser scanner. Millions of points, all with (x,y,z) coordinates.  We call them point clouds.  Clouds of knowing (cf. Dionysius the Pseudo-Areopagite on the cloud), points of certainty.  This is there! Information, data, rich enough to make these precise drawings.


What is the grain of knowledge?  How granular is reality?  What is?



Zoom in far enough, and there is only empty space.  As it is inside us, and outside us.


…And Now, a Word from Our Sponsor

November 28, 2006

In honor of Black Friday, the kickoff day for the shopping season:

The world is too much with us; late and soon,
Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers:
Little we see in Nature that is ours;
We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!
This Sea that bares her bosom to the moon;
The winds that will be howling at all hours,
And are up-gathered now like sleeping flowers;
For this, for everything, we are out of tune;
It moves us not.–Great God! I’d rather be
A Pagan suckled in a creed outworn;
So might I, standing on this pleasant lea,
Have glimpses that would make me less forlorn;
Have sight of Proteus rising from the sea;
Or hear old Triton blow his wreathed horn.

William Wordsworth, 1807

Atomic Man

December 15, 2005

When I think of the most important ideas in history, right up there with evolution by natural selection is the atomic theory. I’m not talking about Bohr’s, or Rutherford’s, or Dalton’s – all those ideas that lead us to splitting and fusing atoms – I mean the ideas of Democritus, also known as the Laughing Philosopher because of his happy disposition. He formulated the basic ideas of the atomic theory, i.e., the particulate theory of matter, which is to say, he is the founder of materialism.Everything is just particles, interactions of particles, and characteristics of particles. Without this fundamental idea, a scientific, mechanistic, materialistic explanation of the universe is not possible. Sure, maybe you have waves and particles, but you need those particles! Not for Mr. D. the fuzzy mysticism of the Pythagoreans and their number worship! Not for him, the eternal ideas which exist…somewhere…of Plato. There is a void, nature is eternal, all is matter, divisible into tiny specks of something.

As I drive along the highway, I think of this, how the shiny metal skins of the cruising automobiles are actually mostly empty space. (Atoms are mostly empty space, just as our solar system, is mostly void.) If you could look at the world from the vantage point of an atom, sort of like the people in the old movie Fantastic Voyage, or like the viewer in the Eames book, Powers of Ten, you would see everything dissolve into bundles of particles with no clear edges or boundaries. Bundles that are held together by internal forces, but that are filled with voids – endless lattices that somehow deflect forces from moving through them. And nowhere would you see the will, perception, consciousness…

Supposing that there were a machine whose
structure produced thought, sensation, and
perception, we could conceive of it as
increased in size with the same proportions
until one was able to enter into its interior,
as he would into a mill. Now, on going into
it he would find only pieces working upon one
one another, but never would he find anything
to explain Perception.
Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz (1646-1716)

This was hinted at crudely in “The Matrix” in the shots where characters ‘see’ the underlying reality of numbers that form the ‘illusion’ of their material world. The problem with this point of view, as Pynchon had a character observe in Gravity’s Rainbow, is that once you’ve broken everything into little bits, don’t you want to try and put them back together again? How else to understand the “we, I, you,” that seems to be here? Well, I don’t have the answer to that, but I know that postulating a Spirit, a Soul, a Geist, a Ghost in the Machine, a Vital Force, is just a way of making the question go away without answering it. Sort of like when your kid asks you why he can’t do this or that, and you reply, “Because.” “Because, what?” And so it goes on.


December 3, 2004

“When the lightening strikes, the electrical current will be transmitted through the wire to the frog legs on the table, and they will jerk wildly!!” (…insane laughter…)

Thank you, Mr. Galvani, for your revelation of the fundamental material basis for life and action. Electricity was considered and treated as an “occult” force for a long while, and it gave rise to all sorts of pseudo-scientific quackery (and still does) but the experiments of Dr. G showed that our souls consist more of batteries and energy flows than an afflatus of divine origin. When Adam was created, God did not blow life into him, but hooked him up to a battery, and gave him a roaring good jump-start, like another doctor we know, Frankenstein.