This Provincial Life

January 3, 2014

Chekhov Family and Friends
My recent visit to New Orleans got me reading Kate Chopin’s The Awakening, which I thought was very fine, and somehow that led me to Anton Chekhov.  Maybe it’s because I read some of Chopin’s short stories, a literary form I don’t spend much time with, that I decided to try Chekhov’s stories.

First, I read “A Chorus Girl,” which introduced me to the sad humor and unflinching perception of the author, and then I read the novella, My Life:  The Story of a Provincial.  It was a free ebook, and the translation was by the prolific and oft disrespected Constance Garnett, but nevertheless, I was deeply impressed.  I felt that I was reading a kindred spirit to Italo Calvino, perhaps my all-time favorite writer, with his critical and accurate eye that makes observations tempered by a very deep sense of connection to all things human.  Indeed, the story of My Life, with and the somewhat hapless but likeable, and fundamentally honest main character, reminded me of one of my Calvino favorites, “Smog.”

Written and taking place at the end of the 19th century, the story tells of Misail, a young man born to an architect-father who is, in some way, never explained, of noble extraction.  Misail, to the father’s dismay, decides to abandon the pursuit of a “respectable” career, as a professional, in a government clerkship, or in some other walk of life that requires no manual labor, and becomes a simple workman.  This makes his narrow-minded and class-obsessed father apoplectic, and matters are not helped when Misail’s adoring younger sister starts to take after him, at least as far as not acting the part of a proper young woman of means.

At times, the story seems to be running along the lines of the old plot of a young and foolish idealist who is chastened by exposure to the hardships of the real world, but Chekhov is deeper than that.  It turns out that Misail actually does have the courage of his convictions.  He is, diverted, however, by an attractive young woman, who also has a “sledge-driver” of a father, who marries him, and sets them up on a defunct estate, with dreams of creating a model society there.  Her convictions don’t run so deep, and she dumps poor Misail, running off to the metropolis to carry on properly as a sensitive intellectual with visible means of support.

Misail’s sister gets pregnant by a married man, a pompous doctor, and then falls ill.  He goes to their father, half convinced that now is the time to fall on his knees to beg forgiveness, if only to get help for his sister.  After his father makes clear that he despises both him and his sister, and that he blames Misail for his sister’s plight, that notion is put to rest for good, and Misail delivers a blistering indictment of his father’s self-centered life and mentality:

“And who is to blame?” cried my father. “You, you scoundrel!”

“Yes. Say that I am to blame,” I said. “I admit that I am to blame for many things, but why is your life, which you have tried to force on us, so tedious and frigid, and ungracious, why are there no people in any of the houses you have built during the last thirty years from whom I could learn how to live and how to avoid such suffering? These houses of yours are infernal dungeons in which mothers and daughters are persecuted, children are tortured…. My poor mother! My unhappy sister! One needs to drug oneself with vodka, cards, scandal; cringe, play the hypocrite, and go on year after year designing rotten houses, not to see the horror that lurks in them. Our town has been in existence for hundreds of years, and during the whole of that time it has not given the country one useful man—not one! You have strangled in embryo everything that was alive and joyous! A town of shopkeepers, publicans, clerks, and hypocrites, an aimless, futile town, and not a soul would be the worse if it were suddenly razed to the ground.”

Not a pretty picture of provincial life.  Nor is it a nice picture of those who criticize it, and those who live it.  As Meville would have it, …ah humanity!


Open Heart Surgery

November 24, 2010

The Maximes et Réflexions morales (1664) of François de La Rochefoucauld is a collection of witty, cutting, cynical, funny, brutally honest, depressing, and occasionally comforting dissections of the human heart and spirit.  They are of a type of literature for which the French are known, and the tradition of which they are a part is still alive among the elite of modern France.  Consider the quotation from Claude Chabrol in his recent obituary from the NYTimes.  Nietzsche and Oscar Wilde also come to mind.

Here are a few favorites, not in their original order, from my recent dip into the text:

L’hypocrisie est un hommage que le vice rend à la vertu.
Hypocrisy is the homage vice pays to virtue.

La philosophie triomphe aisément des maux passés et des maux à venir. Mais les maux présents triomphent d’elle.
Philosophy triumps easily over past misfortunes and those to come.  But present ones triumph over it.

Les vieillards aiment à donner de bons préceptes, pour se consoler de n’être plus en état de donner de mauvais exemples.
Old people love to give good advice to console themselves for not being in a state to set a bad example.

C’est une espèce de coquetterie de faire remarquer qu’on n’en fait jamais.
It is a way of flirting to claim that one never flirts.

Les vertus se perdent dans l’intérêt, comme les fleuves se perdent dans la mer.
Virtues lose themselves in self-interest as rivers lose themselves in the sea.

Quand les vices nous quittent, nous nous flattons de la créance que c’est nous qui les quittons.
When our vices quit us, we flatter ourselves by believing that we have quit them.

Comme c’est le caractère des grands esprits de faire entendre en peu de paroles beaucoup de choses, les petits esprits au contraire ont le don de beaucoup parler, et de ne rien dire.
Great characters can say much with few words, while on the contrary, petty characters talk a great deal and say nothing.

Le désir de paraître habile empêche souvent de le devenir.
The desire to appear clever often presents us from being so.

La vertu n’irait pas si loin si la vanité ne lui tenait compagnie.
Virtue would never get so far if vanity did not accompany it.

La souveraine habileté consiste à bien connaître le prix des choses.
The greatest cleverness consists in knowing the value of everything.

C’est une grande habileté que de savoir cacher son habileté.
It is a great cleverness to hide one’s cleverness.

Ce qui paraît générosité n’est souvent qu’une ambition déguisée qui méprise de petits intérêts, pour aller à de plus grands.
What appears as generosity is often nothing but disguised ambition that has put aside petty self-interest in order to advance a greater one.

Une des choses qui fait que l’on trouve si peu de gens qui paraissent raisonnables et agréables dans la conversation, c’est qu’il n’y a presque personne qui ne pense plutôt à ce qu’il veut dire qu’à répondre précisément à ce qu’on lui dit. Les plus habiles et les plus complaisants se contentent de montrer seulement une mine attentive, au même temps que l’on voit dans leurs yeux et dans leur esprit un égarement pour ce qu’on leur dit, et une précipitation pour retourner à ce qu’ils veulent dire; au lieu de considérer que c’est un mauvais moyen de plaire aux autres ou de les persuader, que de chercher si fort à se plaire à soi-même, et que bien écouter et bien répondre est une des plus grandes perfections qu’on puisse avoir dans la conversation.
One of the reasons why so few people seem reasonable and attractive in conversation is that almost everyone thinks more about what he himself wants to say than about answering exactly what is said to him.  The cleverest and most polite people  are content merely to look attentive, while all the time we see in their eyes and minds a distraction from what is being said to them and an impatience to get  back to what they themselves want to say.  Instead, they should reflect that striving so hard to please themselves is a poor way to please or convince other people, land that the ability to listen well and answer well is one of the greatest merits we can have in conversation.

Dans toutes les professions chacun affecte une mine et un extérieur pour paraître ce qu’il veut qu’on le croie. Ainsi on peut dire que le monde n’est composé que de mines.
In all professions,  we affect exterior appearances of what owe wish people to think us.  So, one can say that the world is made of nothing but appearances.

Et un coup de chapeau à mon professeur de Français – cette  petite, vieux, Alsacienne, Mme Schmidt, qui m’a initié à cette maxime:
L’absence diminue les médiocres passions, et augmente les grandes, comme le vent éteint les bougies et allume le feu.

And a tip of the hat to my French teacher – that little old Alsatian, Madame Schmidt, who introduced me to this maxim:
Absence diminishes mediocre passions and strengthens great ones, just as the wind blows out a candle and kindles a fire.


The crowd, Pascal, and the philosophers

June 20, 2009

weegee_coney blaise philosophers

I have been fascinated by Blaise Pascal for a long time.  He was a child prodigy; he invented an early mechanical calculator; he was an accomplished wit and satirist who skewered his opponents in religious controversy in his Provincial Letters; his scientific work on hydrostatics and the debate over the existence of a vacuum were as monumental for the future of physics as was his ground breaking work on geometry and probability theory for mathematics.  And, he was a mystic.

In the last week or two, a few exchanges here and there in my little corner of the blogsphere have brought him to mind once again; specifically his thinking about the role of The Philosopher (thinkers and intellectuals)vis a vis The People, aka The Masses.  In his very short introduction to Pascal (Pascal:  In Praise of Vanity, part of the Great Philosophers series) Ben Rogers teases out Pascal’s thoughts on this topic from his Pensées, that disordered bundle of notes and passages in his papers found after his death.

Sometimes I take Troutsky & Co. @ Thoughtstreaming to task for their leftist-Marxist assumptions about the nature of popular consciousness. I happen to agree with most of their policy prescriptions, but they often sound to me as if they believe that “everyone is just so damn stupid – if they’d just read more theory, or listen to us, they’d see the truth and revolt – but they are drugged (that opium, again…) by popular consumer culture and propaganda so they vote Republican, etc. etc…”  Sometimes these agitators of the Left sound almost as supercilious about The  People as William F. Buckley, that great pseudo-intellectual snob, sounded on a good day.  Pascal addresses just this conflict.

As Rogers reads him, Pascal detected in The Philosophers a “conceited intellectualism – a utopian rationalism – which he was determined to shake and unsettle.”  Even though Pascal assented to the Philosphers’ condemnation of popular vanity – the people don’t know the truth, they are diverted by stupid useless entertainments, they are driven by their passions rather than by analysis – he engages in a “constant swing pro to con” about them.  Some might call it a dialectic.

Thus we have shown that man is vain to pay so much attention to things which do not really matter, and all these opinions have been refuted.

Then we have shown that all these opinions are perfectly sound so that, all these examples of vanity being perfectly justified, ordinary people are not as vain as they are said to be. (#93)

For example, Rogers notes that the “sages” complain that the activities that people pursue are vain and trivial, distracting, and rule out all opportunity for reflection. Pascal responds that this is precisely their point.  As he puts it in a fragment on divertissement:

…those who hold that  people are quite unreasonable to spend all day chasing a hare they would not have wanted to buy, have little knowledge of our nature.  The hare itself would not save us from thinking about death and the miseries distracting us, but the hunting does so.  (#136)

How’s that for a demolition of the Situationist critique of compelled consumption/consumer culture?

Pascal’s thought is subtle and diffuse, but, in sum, he feels that The People have adapted sensibly to the pressures of life served up to them by God and the political order.  At bottom, there is a dark, pessimistic conservatism in his politics.  He says it is necessary for The People to be distracted, and lied to, because if they were told the bald truth about the injustice of society, they would rebel.  Pascal is not a rebel, though he is subversive!  He demolishes the pretentions of the Philosophers who try to demonstrate that the political order is just, and according to God’s law.  He knows it’s a sham.  The people sense this, and they know their relative powerlessness, so they adapt.

One need not endorse Pascal’s bleak realpolitick to accept the wisdom of many of his observations.  He is right – philosophers, sages, agitators, are often out of touch with the real life of the people, and they impose their tastes, views, and aspirations on them, dismissing other approaches to life as surrender to bourgeois hegemony, apathy, or some other political sin.  Thus, the possibilities for overturning the political order are slim to none.  History does not offer much support for the claim that it is eminently feasible.

Moreover, nobody is truly free.  We have free will, but it is limited.  We do not choose where or when we are born.  We cannot start from a blank slate.  We are raised in, and must move forward from the state of things as they are.

Most important, when “thinkers” start riffing on “false-consciousness,” cultural brainwashing, the evils of popular culture, the pernicious influence of the media, think of Pascal and his double-edged critique of “conceited” Philosophers.

More junk from me on Monsieur Blaise:

  • Pascal’s famous wager on the existence of God.
  • Further reflections on divertissement.
  • A note on Pascals most famous mystical passage.

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