Demons I: Fanatical and Fatuous

October 27, 2011

I am 3/4 through Dostoyevsky’s Demons, in the recent P&V translation, and the action has certainly picked up!  At first, the book was tough going with its large cast of characters, the nicknames, the relationships between them that are hidden, and the strange mix, typical of Dostoyevsky, of parody, satire, melodrama, and biting criticism.  (I agree completely with Frank’s remark in the introduction that Dostoyevsky’s qualities as a satirist and humorist are vastly underrated.)  I had to make a crib sheet to keep the people straight, and it was often difficult to understand what was happening on a page, even though I read carefully.  Sort of like reading an old and decorous novel about sexual seduction and moving over the ‘good part’ without realizing that the characters actually are having sex…but this isn’t about sex, for the most part.

Readers of this blog will know that I have a soft spot for extreme rhetoric (see links below), from the religious or political standpoint, and crackpot intellectual systems.  The section in Part II, With Our People, an ironic ‘our’, describes a meeting of  local poseurs, provocateurs, agitators, and intellectual wannabees spouting political rhetoric.  There is a heated discussion of whether or not it will be necessary to chop off the heads of one million souls, and whose heads will go flying.  And there are hilarious and idiotic exchanges among students whose heads are filled with slogans and left-wing catch phrases.  At one point, a stuffy respectable gentleman remonstrates with a young student-girl hothead, saying:

But I’m your uncle!  I used to tote you around in my arms when you were still an infant!

The Generation Gap in miniscule.  She replies:

What do I care what you used to tote around.  I didn’t ask you to tote me around, which means, mister impolite officer, that you got pleasure from it.

I sense a delicious parody here of the intellectual obsession with Utilitarian theories, which Dostoyevsky loathed:  people are motivated to avoid pain and seek pleasure, simple as that.  No sense in pointing out your former selfless and dutiful familial activities:  you did it for your own pleasure!

The chilling talk of mass murder might have seemed simply absurd in the 1860s, before Stalin, Lenin, and Hitler, not to mention Pol Pot.  And speaking of Pol Pot, the modern master of barracks communism, as Marx derisively characterized the ravings of the great nihilist,  Nechaev, the trial transcript of Pot’s Russian ancestor was grist for Dostoyevsky’s mill.  (Dostoyevsky was writing in the realist tradition, after all!)  I’ve found very little about Mr. (Nilhil) Nechaev in English, other than the catechism (see link), from which I offer these tidbits:

  • The revolutionary despises all doctrines and refuses to accept the mundane sciences, leaving them for future generations. He knows only one science: the science of destruction. For this reason, but only for this reason, he will study mechanics, physics, chemistry, and perhaps medicine. But all day and all night he studies the vital science of human beings, their characteristics and circumstances, and all the phenomena of the present social order. The object is perpetually the same: the surest and quickest way of destroying the whole filthy order.
  • Tyrannical toward himself, he must be tyrannical toward others. All the gentle and enervating sentiments of kinship, love, friendship, gratitude, and even honor, must be suppressed in him and give place to the cold and single-minded passion for revolution. For him, there exists only one pleasure, on consolation, one reward, one satisfaction – the success of the revolution. Night and day he must have but one thought, one aim – merciless destruction. Striving cold-bloodedly and indefatigably toward this end, he must be prepared to destroy himself and to destroy with his own hands everything that stands in the path of the revolution.
  • The nature of the true revolutionary excludes all sentimentality, romanticism, infatuation, and exaltation. All private hatred and revenge must also be excluded. Revolutionary passion, practiced at every moment of the day until it becomes a habit, is to be employed with cold calculation. At all times, and in all places, the revolutionary must obey not his personal impulses, but only those which serve the cause of the revolution.

And then, at the fete, there is the fatuous Mr. Karmazinov, a lampoon of Ivan Turgenev, the Euro-centered literary master with whom Dostoyevsky had a difficult, and largely hostile relationship.  (Ivan and Flaubert were great friends.) His speech bidding farewell to his readers, none of which is in the audience, is a scornful burlesque of intellectual self-satisfaction and pompousness.  Perhaps it is unfair to Turgenev, but it would not be so funny if it weren’t.  No doubt, he would love it if his fans would beg him, on their knees of course, not to leave Russia for retirement in Germany.  So much for westward-leaning intellectuals who see Russia’s future in Europe.

After his final words, and merci, Karmazinov is called back on stage to loud applause, and the governor’s radical-chic wife hands him a bouquet of roses.

“Laurels!” Karmazinov said with a subtle and somewhat caustic grin.  “I am moved, of course, and accept this wreath, prepared beforehand but as yet unwithered, with lively emotion:  but I assure you, mesdames, I have suddenly become so much of a realist that I consider laurels in our age rather more fitting in the hands of skillful cook than in mine…”

Shouts from the crowd reply:

“Except that cooks are more useful!”  and
“I’ll add three more roubles for a cook”
“So would I.”
“So would I.”
“But do they really have no buffet here…?”

He, he! Oh, that Fyodor, he’s a card!

Some links to over the top talk:


Pudd’nhead Wilson

September 26, 2011

I owe a note of thanks to the Argumentative Old Git for his comment that led me to Pudd’nhead Wilson, a rather neglected work by Mark Twain.  This very funny, very darkly humorous and ironic tale is a twist on the Prince and the Pauper and all those switched-at-birth fables and comedies – this time, with a slave and a slave owner as the subjects.

The title character is not really the main character, nor is he the fool (puddinghead) that everyone takes him for on the basis of one offhand remark he made twenty years before the main action of the novel in Dawson’s Landing, Missouri.  Of course, the slave woman Roxy doesn’t seem to be what she is, because she is white to the eye, but a certified, bought and sold negro.  So too with her son, Valet de Chambers.  She cares for him, and The Master’s son, Tom, whom her own child resembles.  As with all slaves, Roxy lives in fear of being ‘sold down the river’ to hard servitude in the deep South, but she fears even more for her son:  What might happen if her good and kind master dies and his heir or creditors are hard hearted?  She resolves to protect the future of her son by switching him with Tom, and Tom’s rather negligent father is none the wiser.

Her son, now Tom, grows up to be an arrogant, profligate, disreputable gambler, while the real Tom grows into a typically obsequious house slave.  So much for blood telling all.  There are some Italian twins who visit, a murder, a trial, and a thrilling resolution by Wilson, a frustrated lawyer who finally gets his chance to show his wits in court, saving the falsely accused twins with his fingerprint collection, a hobby he has pursued for years.  Of course, these same prints reveal the secret about Tom and Chambers, and their situations are set right, in traditional comedic fashion.  Of course, the story was originally called The Tragedy of Pudd’nhead Wilson because things don’t turn out so well, when people are restored to their proper places within the social system.

Twain is savaging just about everything in this short novel.  The reader has the sense that he was throwing up his hands with disgust at the fatuousness and cruelty of the human race.  You can read the entire text of this strange work, and view some fascinating illustrations and associated materials at this excellent website.


Life Among the Lowly

September 20, 2011

Uncle Tom’s Cabin or, Life Among the Lowly by Harriet Beecher Stowe is one of those tremendously important novels that I never wanted to read.  Yes, Lincoln greeted Stowe with the remark, “Here is the little lady who made this great war,” and it incited the howling protest of the south (as well as scores of ‘rebuttals’), but I expected a melodramatic and not very satisfying literary experience.  I was wrong.  The book is suspenseful, direct, and extremely powerful.  As an American, that is a person who lives with the political and social legacy of centuries of slavery and Jim Crow all around me, it is at times, a harrowing read.

In American English, an Uncle Tom is a black man who is compliant and subservient to his masters, often in an obsequious and fawning manner – that’s the cliché.  The character of Tom in the novel, however, is not like this at all.  In the introduction to my edition, and this NYTimes piece on the occasion of the 150th anniversary of the book, the writers account for this contradiction by pointing out that the novel, which was incredibly popular, was immediately copied, parodied, adapted to the stage, and eventually found its way into, of all things, Minstrel Shows.  Along the way, a novelistic broadside against racism and slavery became a comedic entertainment perpetuating racist stereotypes.  Such is the wending path of culture.

The book is sentimental at times, particularly in two areas:  the description of the slaves; and the treatment of religion.  Stowe portrays the slaves almost always a fine souls, at the worst, a little ridiculous:  not genuine people who will be good, bad, or indifferent.  They are filled with noble sentiments, and their faults are only the product of their degraded state in life.  They are described often as having the positive attributes of childhood:  sincerity, directness, empathy.  Whether this was Stowe’s actual view or a means to make her characters more attractive to her readers I do not know. As the editor remarks in the introduction, this sentimentality has a radical element in that directing such feelings toward African slaves involved contradicting their status as chattel, often regarded as members of a non-human or sub-human species. 

The treatment of religion, especially in the depiction of the death of the little angel, Eva, is a fine example of Victorian religious sentimentality, and might bring to mind Oscar Wilde’s quip about Dickens:  One would have to have a heart of stone to read the death of little Nell without dissolving into tears…of laughter.   But it is sincere nevertheless:  Stowe was serious in her belief that adherence to Christian teaching would make the institution of slavery impossible.

Abolitionists, of which Stowe was one, sometimes criticized Uncle Tom for being too light in its criticism of slavery.  This may have to do with the fact that the slaves are, for the most part, house servants and higher level members of the plantation staff, and have relatively good masters.  Perhaps Stowe felt she could not write convincingly of the thoughts and feelings of workers spending their days toiling in sugar cane and the like, and in this, she followed an important writers’ guideline:  write what you know.  By focusing on the hardships of slaves under benign masters, who nevertheless face servitude and the potential breakup of their families, she opens, but leaves unanswered the question, how much worse would it be for those with hard masters?  The slaves live in fear of “being sold down the river,” (I never knew the origin of that phrase!)  i.e. shipped off to plantations further south where the hard labor kills them off quickly.  Then she brings that about for Tom, who is sold to the vile Simon Legree.

Stowe is not the least sentimental when she skewers the hypocrisy, intellectual, theological, and political, that surrounds the peculiar institution.  A lengthy section in which Tom is owned by Augustine, a jaded and refined member of the plantation élite, provides a stage to walk on and dismantle all sorts of notions that were argued about slavery in the pre-Civil War days.  Augustine knows all the arguments, and dismisses them all as humbug.  He knows it’s wrong, and that slavery is based on nothing but might and self-interest, but he does nothing about it – does not free his slaves – because he claims to be lazy and indifferent, but he is kind and thoughtful to his human property.  His cynicism masks the corruption and despair of a soul polluted by the institution that makes his leisured affluence possible.  His wife, a clear ancestor of Tennessee Williams’ neurotic belle, Blanche Dubois, spends her days in bed with headaches and complaints, and has nothing but contempt for her servants.  Augustine is also an atheist, which Stowe sees as the cause of his moral inertia, but with the death of his daughter, he is shaken loose of his torpor, but too late.

Augustine, a typical Victorian ideal figure – he has a Grecian profile, alabaster skin, golden curls, and a noble temperament – may represent the class of people Stowe was trying to influence.  Certainly the grim and vulgar Simon Legree is a species of the white trash, in the North and South, with whom she would not bother.  Ophelia, Augustine’s Yankee cousin who comes to stay with him, represents a properly religious northerner.  Although she is abolitionist to the core, she is stung when Augustine truthfully points out to her that she is disgusted by the Africans in her midst.  As always, the southerners claim that you northerners don’t know how to treat our negroes.  Ophelia, in touch with her Christian faith, changes however, and repents of her moral error.

Very often, Stowe points out with brutal clarity how what would be considered immoral and intolerable among whites is considered perfectly normal for whites to inflict on the slaves:  breaking up families and selling them off like horses at auction, for example.  In one stunning passage, she explicitly compares an escaped slave, George, who holds off his pursuers with a rifle, to Hungarian freedom fighters opposing Austrian oppression, a cause supported by many Americans.  What is the difference, she asks, other than color?  So much for sentimentality.

In many passages of the novel, Stowe references the sexual degradation that awaits pretty girls sold to less than humane masters, something which brought to my mind the statue The Greek Slave Girl by Hiram Powers, one of the most popular pieces of art in the 19th century.  Copies were made and widely distributed, and crowds lined up to see it.  The press did not often make the connection between Greeks sold into slavery by Turks and American enslavement of Africans, but some people did.  Moreover, literary accounts of ‘white’ girls, i.e. women who were legally black although of very light skin and hair, and were sold as slaves, were sometimes a sensation:  perhaps a truly white girl could, by mistake, find herself enslaved?  The knot of social/sexual issues surrounding all this is so huge, how can one hope to cut through it?  It is just this sort of mental/moral frisson, if not outrage, that Stowe calculated on producing in her readers.  Her armory was large:  if expositions of intellectual hypocrisy don’t convince try religion; If appeals to religious truth and values doesn’t work, try sex and violence; If that doesn’t work, try the sentimental.  They all lead to the same place – abolitionism.

I’m nearly through with the book, and I still don’t know why it’s called Uncle Tom’s Cabin…


Pynchon Fan

August 10, 2011

Initiating conversations with strangers on the NYC subway is not something I do often:  there’s too much uncertainty about the possible responses.  Yesterday, however, I broke my rule when I found myself crushed against the door of a crowded train next to a young man with a tattoo on his inner forearm just like the image above.  After screwing up my resolve, I quietly asked, “Are you a Pynchon fan?”  His eyes lit up, and he replied, “Yes, I am a Pynchon fan!  How many people get that!

For those not in the know, the symbol is a post-horn (used by mail carriers in Europe) and it figures prominently in Pynchon’s only short novel, The Crying of Lot 49.  It’s bound up with the history of the noble family, von Thurn und Taxis (here’s one of them) and their role in setting up one of the first national systems for moving mail.  A rare stamp for sale (crying a lot is an old bit of jargon – obsolete, I was told by a gentleman from Swann Galleries – that means putting an item up for auction) that shows a mail delivery airplane, accidentally printed upside-down, is the source of the title and the key to the mystery of the book.

Hmm..,” I replied.  “Don’t go overboard..,” I said, obliquely referring to all that conspiracy-paranoia stuff in Pynchon’s oeuvre.  Wonder if he caught my meaning.

Here is a link to all my posts tagged Pynchon.


It was I who killed the official’s old widow and her sister Lizaveta with an axe…

July 28, 2011

I read Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment when I was in the ninth grade, and I loved it.  Heaven knows what I understood of it.  Generations later, I have tried to read again all those novels that I devoured then – Karamazov, Demons, Idiots – and I could get nowhere.  I found Dostoyevsky’s style repellant and impenetrable, with the exception of Notes from Underground, which has always been a favorite.  Maybe it was the translation.

I am more than half through the Pevear/Volokhonsky translation of this novel, and I am amazed at the novelty of the book, its outrageous inventiveness.  The phrase I find myself coming back to is avant garde.  It seems so, even now, after 140 years – fresh, challenging, bizarre, and direct.  Compared to this, Dostoyevksy’s contemporary ‘realists’ such as Dickens (whom he loved), Turgenev (whom he loathed) and Flaubert (I don’t know what opinions of each other they entertained, but Flaubert and Turgenev were fast friends) seem almost pedestrian.  The point of view shifts, the mood varies wildly, the characters often seem to speak to the reader directly, and there is no sense of a cool, omniscient consciousness directing the action.  More like real life?

The novel observes a lot of the conventions of 19th century realism:  the place and person names obscured with a hyphen as if to protect the identities of the real people; the fully realized portraits of the city, its classes, and the grit of everyday life – but it seems profoundly stagey, literally as if a play, not a novel, which makes it seem unrealistic at the same time.  Characters enter, declaim, moan, howl, rave, and exit.  So much of the action takes place in crowded rooms.  People are forever making decisions, talking, arguing, and falling into reverie on stairs, going up and going down.

Unusual also is the recounting of dreams:  they are utterly credible, in a way that I associate with writing of the 20th century only.  Earlier writers tend towards romantic notions of what the dormant mind produces – Raskolnikov’s are completely believable, especially the first in which he imagines following a man, a man who knows his crime, a man who stops, turns, and waves to him from across the street, saying nothing.

Finally, Dostoyevsky gets the jump on all the existentialist notions that would become trite in generations to come.  Listen to this deliciously funny, dark, exchange as Raskolnikov and Svidrigailov discuss the afterlife and eternity:

“We keep imagining eternity as an idea that cannot be grasped, something vast, vast!  But why must it be vast?  Instead of all that, imagine suddenly that there will be one little room there, something like a village bathhouse, covered with soot, with spiders in all the corners, and that’s the whole of eternity.  I sometimes fancy something of the sort.”

“But surely, surely you can imagine something more just and comforting than that!” Raskolnikov cried out with painful feeling.

“More just?  Who knows, perhaps that is just- and, you know, if I had my way, it’s certainly how I would do it!”  Svidrigailov answered, smiling vaguely.

How many episodes of the Twilight Zone, how many adolescent rock lyrics, what pile of scripts and plays start with notions like this?

With the climate of political extremism being what it is these days, I think I just might get myself a copy of The Demons next.


People of the Heart

April 11, 2011

Ice is the middle volume of a trilogy by Vladimir Sorokin.  (NYRB published Ice first, and has just now published the entire set in translation.)  It tells of a weird, blonde-haired, blue-eyed brotherhood of souls who are awakened to true life after being hammered in the chest with sledges made of blocks of ice from the comet that nearly slammed into the Earth in 1908.  Other humans are regarded as “empties,” empty of spiritual heart, that is, and simply die under the impact of the hammer.  It’s a mix of vulgarity, pulp, sci-fi, absurd New Age fantasy, and social satire.  Among the most biting passages were those that depicted the ruthlessness of Stalin’s minions among whom the Brothers and Sisters of the ice move in an effort to find the rest of their group.  Can’t say I feel tempted to read the other two volumes, but this was a quick read that started off really well, and then just petered out.


Tolstoy Epilogue – Boney Demolished

December 30, 2010

I am wrapping up my re-reading of War and Peace, and have reached the Epilogue in which Tolstoy gives us a peek at the settled lives his characters lead after the tumult of 1812.  He starts off with another round in his demolition of Napoleon and The Great Man Theory of History, and then descends into rather tedious domestic relations, before returning to a lengthy essay on causation in history.  A few years later, Tolstoy would begin Anna Karenina with one of literature’s most famous first lines:

Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.

but in his Epilogue, he hasn’t realized this yet, and he is quite boring and almost sentimental in his description of the endless happiness of his happily married figures.  It’s only a few false steps after a journey of a thousand miles though, and they are preceded by one of Tolstoy’s wonderfully condensed valentines to young lovers on the brink of joy as Pierre and Natasha get together:

She glanced back.  For a few seconds they looked silently into each other’s eyes, and the distant and impossible suddenly became near, possible, and inevitable.        .            .            .             .              .              .          .              .            .

What could be the stuff of soap opera melodrama is nothing more than this.  The two lines of evenly spaced dots are in the original.

Tolstoy then goes on to dissect and discard the myth of Napoleon Bonaparte, treating him as an egotistical, short-sighted, vainglorious man, with “childish boldness and self-confidence,” (which echoes Tolstoy’s description of Prince Andrei’s sally at Austerlitz),  who managed to be at the right place at the right time to ride the crest of historical waves, and then be crushed beneath them as they broke.  He was certainly making a valuable correction to the romantic hero-worship of people such as Carlyle, but he goes too far, confusing and conflating the moral and historical meanings of the word “great.”

He describes the invasion of Russia in 1812 in pseudo-scientific, metaphorical terms as waves of migration moving one way and another, causing backwashes, as though he is discussing the great Asiatic migrations of the 5th or 12th centuries, that gave us the barbarian invasions of Rome and the Mongol Hordes.  He never says what causes those waves, and he doesn’t entertain the idea that perhaps a “great man” is simply one who knows when he is at the right place in the right time.  He sees it as simply chance upon chance.  He refers mysteriously to the “purposes” of history, and uses metaphors of the theatre – the last act, the script, the role figures play – and so on.  Perhaps he thinks that God is the director, but it’s a short jump from Tolstoy to Karl Marx who thought he had scientifically described the same laws of history that Tolstoy mystifies.

Perhaps history is bunk, or just one damned thing after another.  Or perhaps there are causes to be discerned in history, but they only hold true for specific instances, and are never universal laws.  Or perhaps causes only exist in retrospect…Tolstoy seems to prefigure Lichanos’ Iron Law of Historical Causation when he says:

Why did it happen this way and not otherwise?                                                                                                                                            Because this is how it happened.

Tolstoy did his historical debunking of Napoleon some fifty years after the fact, but James Gillray was onto the same ideas while Boney was in his glory.  One of his caricatures is at the top of this post, and another, a comic strip political cartoon nearly two centuries before Doonesbury, is shown below.  It illustrates several of the episodes alluded to by Tolstoy in his acid recounting of the rise of the Great Man.

For more Gillray images of Napoleon, visit this excellent site:  Brown University Digial Library



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