Still not quite sure what to think about Dostoyevsky’s THE IDIOT

I love this cover. Isn't that dude just so adorable with his widdle moustache?
I love this cover. Isn’t that dude just so adorable with his widdle moustache?

I’m about a fourth of the way through Dostoyevsky’s The Idiot. I’ve read a fair amount of Dostoyevsky, but I read almost all of it during about a year-long period (2009-10). He was one of the first serious authors that I really tried to tackle. I believe I started with Notes From The Underground (which is such an unbelievably bizarre book that I’m surprised I read anymore) and then read Brothers Karamazov, The Double, The Gambler, and Demons.

I really enjoyed Demons. Much more so than Brothers, actually. I thought that Demons was one of his more human works, particularly in the relationship between the professor and his patron, Varvara. But, weirdly, I wasn’t able to read any other Dostoyevsky for the next four years. I mean, I tried, on a number of occasions, to begin Crime and Punishment, but it never clicked for me. I also tried, at various times, to read The Eternal Husband and Other Stories and House of the Dead. I don’t know what it is, exactly. I think it’s just that Dostoyevsky is full of grotesques and at some point I lost interest in grotesques. It became hard for me to see any humanity in his characters or in his work.

That’s a common criticism of Dostoyevsky, but perhaps not a fair one. I don’t know.

The Idiot is different, because the hero, Prince Myshkin, is just so darned good. Apparently, its Dostoyevsky’s attempt to create a positive ideal: a person that we can look up to. I actually really enjoy the Prince’s artlessness. He’s so funny. It’s like he doesn’t know what kind of novel he’s in. People will come in and tell him things that you know are supposed to be secret, and he’ll just blab them to the next person he talks to. And although he sort of plays along with peoples’ intrigues, he also stays above them. He remains uncaptured and uninterested in the outcomes of these schemes.

But I’m still not sure about the book. Right now it’s just been conversations. Interminable conversations. I’m a fifth of the way through the book and less than one day has passed. Oh well, I’m withholding judgment.

Fiction isn’t a very good tool for shedding light on how things work

Source: National Geographic
Source: National Geographic

I used to think that the purpose of fiction was to make sense of the world. Fiction was a hypothesis about how certain people would act under certain situations. That’s why I was drawn to science fiction. By creating more outré and stylized situations, it was possible to make bolder statements about human behavior.

The problem with this conception of fiction, though, is that fiction is written by individual human beings. And, with a few exceptions, it’s written primarily through the exercise of a person’s intuition and personal observations of the world. And intuition and personal observation even when they’re being exercised by a literate and highly intelligent person, aren’t very good at figuring stuff out about the world. If they were, then Aristotle would’ve sorted everything out 2500 years ago, and we all could’ve relaxed.

When people want to figure something out about the world, they use a little thing called science. And while the raw material of science is informed intuition (you can’t generate a hypothesis without some creative spark), the end result of the scientific process is that most of those intuitions  are discarded.*

Art’s not like that. If art is about figuring things out, then it’s all hypothesis and no confirmation.

However, that’s not really a problem, because I’ve come to think that the purpose of (most) art isn’t really to figure things out. Instead, I’d say that (one of) the purposes of art is to get away from that whole scientific mindset and to situate us more firmly within our own experience of the world

Because figuring things out is great and all, but scientific truth is reductive. You see all this stuff around you? This physical matter that comes in so many shapes and colors and textures and tastes? Well, all that stuff is really just made of 100+ basic elements. And those elements are just combinations of three basic particles. And those particles are just…etc, etc.

Science makes the world smaller. It turns everything into a subset of something else

And nowhere is this more apparent than in the science of human behavior..

For instance, one of the hot things in human behavior is happiness research. And most happiness research operates off of this happiness survey that they give to people. A survey that, in essence, asks people to rate their own happiness on a scale of 1 to 10. Now, this is a pretty controversial tool, since who knows what the survey is actually measuring? However, as I understand it, there is some data (some of it based on brain scans) to suggest that peoples’ answers on this survey are correlated with what they’d call their subjective feeling of happiness. And, using this survey, it’s possible to draw some broad conclusions about what kinds of things make people happy and what kinds of things don’t make them happy (earning more than $75,000 a year doesn’t make you happy, but getting married does, for instance).

However, when you really start to think about it, this paints a pretty bleak view of human existence. That’s because the broad range of human experience and behavior has been turned into a math problem. What thoughts and stimuli will make this number higher? And what will make it lower?

Now, it’s certainly possible to create fiction that’s based on the struggle to solve this math problem. And I think that plenty of very good fiction has been written about that (most of Emile Zola’s work, for instance; and the work of both Thomas Mann and Fyodor Dostoyevsky contains very good analyses of various political, social , philosophical, and psychological attempts to either deal with or dispense with math problem).

But I think it’s possible to get way too locked into the math problem and to start seeing one’s own life in those very reductive terms. It’s too easy, in this world, to spend every minute of every day thinking stuff like, “Am I happy? Is this making me happy? How can I get happier?”

And one function of art, for me, is to rescue us from that thought process.

Because life is not naturally a math problem. Life is naturally a really complicated and multi-faceted thing. And people do things for lots of reasons. And there are lots of strange things in it. For instance, I read an article in Slate the other day about tornado chasers. That was nuts! I couldn’t believe that this was an actual somewhat-organized hobby. I’d just assumed that most tornado videos were happenstance things.

It’s possible to view tornado-chasing in happiness-optimization terms: the people are seeking the euphoria that arises as a biological response to facing danger; and they’re also seeking the social status that comes with being seen as bold people.

But that also ignores the reality that these people CHASE TORNADOES. They listen on the radio and on Twitter and when they hear a report, they grab their cameras and hop in their SUVs and drive towards a whirling funnel of hundred mile an hour wind!

Now why do they do that? All that stuff about happiness is true. But why do they chase tornadoes instead of playing Russian Roulette with each other (although I’m sure there’s a group of people who do that, too)?

And the answer is…I have no idea. And the purpose of art isn’t to provide answers to that question. Nor is the purpose of art to raise that question and say, “Oh, science should really have a look at why people do that.”

Instead, I think the purpose of art is to strip away the question and allow us to look at the thing in itself. Art allows us to situate ourselves within the human experience and just remember, “Oh yeah, this is what being alive is like. This is what stuff looks like. This existence. This—motion, language, sound, color—is the medium through which I live my life.”

*I’m speaking to an idealized version of science here. In practice, things are more complicated. But at least science, unlike art, has ability to measure whether a statement is empirically true.

Woman as Financial Vampire

I’m currently reading (and considerably enjoying) Edith Wharton’s Custom Of The Country. But I am also disquieted by the novel. At its core, the story of this novel is a very familiar one. It’s about an ambitious woman who sucks dry a somewhat dreamy man with her incessant financial demands.

The cunning woman who only longs for fine society and fine objects and uses her beauty as a tool with which to entrap men into providing for her desires is an incredibly familiar figure in literature. She is so familiar, in fact, that I kept having these strange echoes while I read the book. I’d have a brief impression, and then I wouldn’t be able to rest until I remembered the other book that I was being reminded of.

I haven’t tracked down all the impressions of what I call “woman as financial vampire”, but I can name a few. There’s Emile Zola’s Nana, about a French prostitute who destroys the fortunes of her admirers. There’s Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, whose eponymous heroine eventually gets her husband deep into debt after issuing numerous notes and trying all kinds of financial manipulations with the village moneylender. There’s Theodore Dreiser’s Sister Carrie: the main character has a paramour who engages in embezzlement to meet her monetary demands. There’s Becky Sharp, from William Makepeace Thackeray’s Vanity Fair, who bankrupts her creditors (and ruins her admittedly horribly husband) by knowingly borrowing huge sums and then running away from her debts. There’s Scarlett O’Hara in Gone With The Wind: who screws over her second husband in various business deals. There’s Grushenka in Dostoyevsky’s Brother’s Karamozov, who causes the central conflict of the novel by creating a large need for money in the oldest brother, Dmitri. There’s Polina in Dostoyevsky’s The Gambler, whose mysterious need for money causes the hero to take up gambling.

Perhaps the most nuanced and complex use of this female trope comes (rather surprisingly) from Charles Dickens. David Copperfield’s first wife, Dora Spenlow, shares many traits with the financial vampires described above: she’s spoiled, petulant, short-sighted, and used to being supported by wealthy men. And when she married David Copperfield, one is almost sure that she is immediately going to drive him to ruin. But she doesn’t. Their marriage is not precisely happy, but she does not destroy him. In the end, it seems like he genuinely loves her and she genuinely loves him.

Most of the examples I cited above are from a particular time period, and, indeed, I think it’s difficult to find more recent examples of the woman as financial vampire. An example from the fifties is Millie, from Graham Greene’s Our Man In Havana, whose financial demands cause her father to enter into the spying business. Another that springs to mind is Jorah Mormont in A Song Of Ice And Fire, who becomes a slaver and a mercenary in order to satisfy his wife Lynesse’s need for jewels and finery and parties.

There must be many more examples of this trope, but its frequent occurrence in my own reading is enough to satisfy me that it is definitely “a thing”.

But it does puzzle me. The occurrence and reoccurrence of the fantastically spendthrift woman in literature seems to suggest that she is being used to work out some sort of deep cultural anxiety. In many cases, her financial needs are coupled with a sexual unfaithfulness, which seems to suggest that they’re both part of some kind of fear of emasculation or loss of control.

But it’s the financial aspect that has always been more startling to me than the sexual aspect. After all, a woman can’t be spendthrift without her husband’s consent. In most of the above relationships, the man has to sign for each and every purchase. He is fully capable, at any time, of cutting the purse strings, but he is so ensnared by her charm that he is unable to.

It’s a strange sort of anxiety and I question how often women like this actually existed. She’s more like a monster than she is like a real person. She has an unholy power to glamor a man. And she has an unquenchable appetite for jewels, hotel rooms, meals, carriages, and dresses.

In some cases (as in Our Man In Havana) the financial vampire is just a plot device. She’s a way to provide the hero with a huge need for money without also making him seem greedy or repellent. But many of these novels are explicitly devoted to the psychology or origins of these women. It’s quite fantastic that so much ink has been spilled about the inner workings creature that can’t have been very common.

But it doesn’t matter that the financial vampire probably didn’t exist too often: what matters is that she ought to exist. Most of these novels conclude that mankind deserves the financial vampire. Halfway through Custom of the Country, a character rather explicitly says that America gives rise to these financial vampires because it infantilizes women and doesn’t allow them to have real pursuits: the reason they have no real concept of money is because they are not allowed to work, and the reason they ruin men is because they are taught that their virtue is measured in what they can extract from males using their beauty and charm.

Personally, though, I am not convinced by these pseudo-feminist morals. Despite the gloss that these novels put on what they’re doing, they are still trafficking in very charged, very sexist imagery, and I think that part of their emotional appeal, as literature, is due to the horror that these women arouse in men. If I created a movie where a mob of blacks rioted and raped a bunch of white women, I think I would still be playing to the racist anxieties of my audience even if I ended the movie by saying “They were driven to this by your racism!”

Wrap Up Season: Surprisingly Good Books, Part One

In an effort to sum up my year’s reading, I divided up the books I read into four categories: Surprisingly Good, Predictably Good, Left Me With Mixed Feelings, and BAD!!! (there’s also a fifth category of books that I didn’t feel like listing, or talking about). Then I divided up them up further by the list of books that I had something to say about and the list that I had nothing to say about.

There were 31 Surprisingly Good books that I decided to honor with little capsule-thinks.  That’s a lot. And that’s why I decided to present sixteen today and the other fifteen tomorrow. Now, first of all, maybe you’re owed a little explanation. What makes a book “Surprisingly Good”? It’s an entirely subjective assessment. I gave it to all the books which surprised me with their goodness. As I noted yesterday, sometimes one goes into a reading experience knowing that the book is going to be good. I feel like it’s much more satisfying when you’re just bopping along, reading a book, for whatever reason, and then suddenly, wham, it turns out to be really good.

Now, there is an open question as to whether I should have been surprised by the goodness of some of these books. After all, some of these authors, like James Baldwin, are hella famous and were on the cover of Time and everything! Some of these books, like the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, are genuwine classics, from hella far back, and have provided the titles to like fifteen Doors songs. But for whatever reason, usually owing entirely to some personal prejudice or lack of knowledge, I was not sure that any of the following books was going to be any good.

(Okay, I am halfway through writing these capsule-thinks, and I note they are extremely lacking in any sort of depth, and usually don’t even manage to explain much about the story and why I liked it. Often they devolve into some kind of personal anecdote that has little relevance to the book in question. But what can you expect? They are a single paragraph long!)

Tell It On The Mountain by James Baldwin – All I knew about James Baldwin before I read this book was that he was black and gay and American and wrote in a vaguely post-WWII time frame. Now I know much more about him, because this novel is the bomb. The “present-day” action of the novel takes place within an all-night prayer session that the teenage protagonist is attending at his father’s church in Harlem. But most of the novel is taken up with three long stories detailing the lives of the boy’s father, aunt, and mother and how they got to where they are, and how their lives became so complicated. I read this book on a plane (to India), and a plane is something like an all-night prayer vigil. It is dark and hushed and still, but with a constant thrum of noise and flickering of light.

 Reflections on the Revolution in France by Edmund Burke – Burke is hailed as one of the intellectual forebears of modern-day conservatism. In his day, the liberals were those damned French revolutionaries, and one of those nitwits wrote to him asking what he thought of the exciting events in France (he published this in 1790, well before most of the blood started being spilt). In this 90,000 word letter (or, I hope, series of letters), Mr. Burke certainly set that fool straight. I thought it was fascinating in the places where it denounced the idea that radical change is something to be desired. I really have no clue what the actual relationship of Burke’s thought is to modern-day conservatism, but I hope it is related. I don’t think that being suspicious of change or of utopian promises is a bad thing (especially not after reading this book).

Death Comes For The Archbishop by Willa Cather – I read this on the same plane-trip during which I read the Baldwin novel, above. Yes, it was a truly magical journey. I picked up this novel solely because of the title. It was not any kind of Gothic horror, though…it was about Catholic priests in the 19th century Southwest. The novel is incredibly flat. There are no big conflicts. There are no huge struggles, or character issues. There is a lot of tromping through various wildernesses. But the flatness is somehow part of its charm. Tales of exploration somehow never manage to convey the bigness of the world the way this story did. If the path in front of you is unknown, then every place is a destination. But if you’re on a long, lonely journey between two isolated outposts – a road that has been mapped, but rarely traveled – you’re somehow far more alone than Lewis and Clark ever were.

Journey To The End Of The Night by Louis-Ferdinand CelineYou might have noticed that sometime around the end of March I began using a lot of ellipses in my online conversations…yeah…that was because of this book. It’s basically a picaresque involving a brutally cynical Frenchman who gets involved in a lot of unpleasant adventures: WWI, acting as a colonial agent at an outpost in Africa, working at a Detroit auto plant, being an orderly in a hospital, entering into private practice as a doctor in a poor Parisian suburb…….all of these things turn out to be extremely disagreeable to him! Also there are ellipses, glorious ellipses…

The Jewel-Hinged Jaw by Samuel R. Delany – I expected a lot of good things from this book, since I am a big fan of Samuel Delany’s work. But my expectations were exceeded so dramatically and in such a different way than I imagined, that I am putting it on this list.

Demons by Fyodor Dostoyevsky – I dunno about you, but I am a little on the fence about Dostoyevsky…I mean, I liked Brothers Karamazov and all, but somehow it was just a tiny bit…overwrought…and all over the place…but after reading Camus refer extensively to this novel in an essay on absurd heroes, I decided to give it a shot. Also, it’s about politics and revolutions and conspiracies. Except the first hundred and fifty pages are not about that at all! They’re about the exceedingly sweet platonic romance between an old has-been (who really never-was) scholar and his wealthy widowed patron. It’s difficult to describe the cuteness of this beginning part (which is long enough to be a regular person’s whole novel). The rest of the novel is pretty good too, at least, I liked it better than Brothers K.

The Sound And The Fury by William Faulkner – Yes, I know that Faulkner has been certified “the shit” by the King of Sweden, but the court of Rahul’s bookshelf obeys a much sterner master! And this master does not like being confused! It makes him feel stupid! He squeals and wails and bays like Chewbacca whenever he feels stupid! So my jury was out on William Faulkner. But now it is in. He’s pretty good. Otherwise, there’s not much to say.

The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam by Edward FitzGerald (and also, I guess, Omar Khayyam). – This is the first book of poetry I have ever read. Somehow poetry just doesn’t sit with me. I mean, I enjoy poems on occasion. But I don’t understand how one reads a “book” of poems, just poem after poem. It’s madness! Luckily, Edward FitzGerald (the translator) edited together the poems to, kind of, tell something of a story. At least, it made sense as a story to me. Furthermore, my version had the first and the fifth edition of the work, one after the other, so I read everything twice (albeit the second time it was subtly different). I liked it a lot. I read this while I was snowed in for seven straight days by the East Coast’s Great January Snowpocalypse.

Sandman by Neil Gaiman – Sandman has always struck me as having an extremely dull premise – “Oh there’s this guy, the personification of Dreams…except he doesn’t really do anything…he just gets progressively more emo”. Also, I don’t know about you, but I am not totally committed to Neil Gaiman’s work. Sometimes, as with Stardust or Good Omens, I like it a lot. But other times, like with American Gods, I don’t dislike it…I just don’t quite…understand the point of it…or why it exists…….But after reading it, I totally understand the point of Sandman. These comics are extremely horrifying. I read pretty much all of them between 3 AM and 5 AM, while I was pulling a string of late nights for a work project, so that might have contributed to the feeling. But there’s just such a bleakness to the Sandman cosmology…no one really cares about anyone…even Dreams’ brothers and sisters can only muster up a tiny modicum of concern for him. There’s nothing to hope for. But then it’s shot through with little wonderful things, like the adult woman who goes into her own childhood dream-world to save her little dream-kingdom from a great, big dream-evil, or Merv Pumpkinhead, the wise-ass janitor of the dreams. I guess all of those are typical Gaimanisms (American God was full of them), but they seem so much more enchanting in Sandman than ordinarily…

Red Harvest by Dashiell Hammett – The first Dashiell Hammett book I’d ever read, and it was an amazing experience. First of all, this is not a mystery…this is just bodies piling up until answers come tumbling out of the pile. Secondly, it’s kind of amazing how Hammett can give you a protagonist with no real background, no desires, not even a name, and make you like him. There’s something flamboyant and fun about the Continental Op. Later on, when Hammet gets around to creating a real character, in the Thin Man, it is truly mind-blowing, but by the time I read that (two weeks after Red Harvest), I had grown to expect the mind-blowing from him, because in that intervening two weeks, I’d read all the other novels he’d written.

The Blithedale Romance by Nathaniel Hawthorne – If you’ve ever lived in anything resembling a quasi-utopian cooperative community, you have to read this book! I think I underlined this book more than any other I’ve read, just because various passage so strongly reminded me of Synergy (in a good way, although all the passages were about slightly ridiculous aspects of communal living). Basically, back in the mid-1800s, Nathaniel Hawthorne and his wife and a whole bunch of their other Great Awakening-type buddies (Margaret Fuller, some other transcendentalist folks, etc), all decided to move out to a farm in New Hampshire and make a whole new and more honest society. Evidently, it was hilarious. But this book is better than most books about utopian experiments because it is not about the failure of said experiment (although the farm does fail, horribly). Instead, it’s a dark and tragic love story. But it’s hard to take said love story seriously. This book is really just sweet, and funny. It’s about friends hanging out together and shooting the shit. It’s about falling, in the course of a single summer, strongly under the sway of a strong personality in a way that disfigures you for life.

The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway – So, like three years ago I was visiting a friend in Portland (Hey Brian!) and he loaned me his copy of A Moveable Feast. And in between bouts of getting hammered, I finished the entire book before the weekend was over. But I had always assumed that the brilliance of A Moveable Feast was an outgrowth of Hemingway’s intensely bombastic personality, and I was suspicious that if he was allowed to fictionalize his pretensions (more so than they were in A Moveable Feast, that is), then I would very much dislike the result. But…I didn’t. He manages to keep it under control. Like a lot of these sorts of books (egotistical young man books), it’s saved by love, and by understanding. The ego of the protagonist gets displaced onto his friends, and he delights in building them up…also the fiesta that caps the book is really something….

Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding by David Hume Mr. Hume has satisfactorily demonstrated to me that it’s impossible to directly perceive any sort of causal relationship, it is only possible to deduce one from repeated observation. That’s a lot of good to get out of a work of philosophy, and much more than I get out of most of them.

Berlin Stories by Christopher Isherwood – I finished this book while I was on a train to Berlin. I read it because it was the only book I knew of that was about Berlin. It was indescribably good. Like, I cannot recommend it strongly enough. I’m sorry I already used up my line about “egotistical young man books” because I want to use it again, but only more so. Isherwood paints all the people his author alter-ego (which is, for half the stories, actually named “Christopher Isherwood”) meets in Weimar Berlin with a very kind brush. There’s not even a single villain amongst them. Most magnificent is his landlord, Frau. Schroeder. In any other book, she’d be a stock character. She’d be predictably ridiculous and consequently ridiculed. I’ve read that character many times. But Isherwood makes her, if not quite a real character (all of his characters are faintly unreal), then at least a beautiful and enchanting character.

Varieties of Religious Experience by William James – Few books describe themselves so well, or so succinctly, in their titles. This is a series of twenty lectures that James gave at the University of Edinburgh around 1901. In it, he goes through, and describes, very comprehensively, and from a psychological point of view (with no eye towards their truth or falseness), the “Varieties of Religious Experience”. When I read it, I was surprised that I had never heard of anyone doing such a thing before. It’s the kind of book that teaches you to see, not by showing you knew things, but by explaining what it is you’ve spent your life looking at, without noticing.

Portrait of the Artist As A Young Man by James Joyce – When I read Dubliners a few years ago, I was like, “Wow, this is actually really good. I expected it to be totally unreadable.” I don’t know why that didn’t preclude me from having exactly the same reaction to this book. I particularly enjoyed the scene (of some ten or twenty pages), where a priest at Dedalus’ school is calling down all kinds of awesome hellfire on them.