Archive for the ‘Literature’ Category

My Antonia by Willa Cather Willa Cather’s My Antonia is one of those novels I saw as having faded into a genteel but deserved obscurity. Anything that struck readers in 1918 as innovative or shocking had long since become quaint, I believed, leaving little to command the attention of modern men and women.

So I was delighted by how good I found My Antonia. Much of my delight came from Cather’s quietly exquisite prose. Her descriptions of the natural world are masterful, although she does a pretty good job of making her characters and situations feel real and convincing, too.

Here is a sample from the narrator’s first impression of the prairie:

As I looked about me I felt that the grass was the country, as the water is the sea. The red of the grass made all the great prairie the colour of wine-stains, or of certain seaweeds when they are first washed up. And there was so much motion in it; the whole country seemed, somehow, to be running.

My Antonia’s episodic structure – the novel is a collage of stories – has a pleasantly proto-modernist flavor (without the tricky syntax). The novel made me wonder about its relationship to Cather’s own life. And in the end, it delivered a grand thematic and emotional wallop.

I warmly recommend it. Here are some details.

My Antonia – The Obligatory Plot Summary

Cather’s novel takes the form of a memoir written by James Quayle Burden, a childhood friend of Antonia’s four years her junior, who arrives in the Nebraska town of Black Hawk on the same day she does. Jim is an orphan from Virginia who has traveled west to be raised by his grandparents. Antonia has immigrated with her family to America from Bohemia (the present day Czech Republic).

For many years, their lives run parallel to each other. First, they are neighbors on country farms situated near each other on a prairie just beginning to be brought under cultivation. Later, they are neighbors in Black Hawk where Jim has moved with his grandparents and Antonia has been hired as a cook and housekeeper. They are separated when Jim leaves Black Hawk to attend university and then settles down to a job and a marriage in New York City. Twenty years later, at the end of the novel, Jim finally returns to Nebraska and seeks out Antonia.

Despite the title, My Antonia is primarily Jim’s story and Antonia and her family can disappear for pages and even chapters at a stretch. The novel finds the time to tell the stories of the hired men who work for Jim’s grandparents; to talk about other immigrant families besides Antonia’s, especially other young farm girls who are hired to work for households in Black Hawk; to describe the residents and observe the culture of the town; and to relate the details of Jim’s love affair with one of Antonia’s friends, Lena Lingard.

Is Jim Burden Willa Cather?

In general, I think it is a bad idea to make inferences about a writer’s life from her novels.

One of the great advantages of fiction is that it allows you to tell readers everything and nothing about yourself – to be wholly candid and entirely private at the same time. And Willa Cather seems to have valued her privacy, considering how many of her private letters and papers she destroyed before her death.

Nevertheless, Willa does make it hard to resist the temptation to equate her with Jim Burden in My Antonia, even though Cather almost certainly intended us to see her as the “I” that appears in the introduction.

Both Burden and Cather moved from Virginia to Nebraska when they were ten years old. Both attended the University of Nebraska (although Jim ultimately earns his degrees from Harvard). Both settled in New York City although their lives are possessed my memories of the prairie. Both write their books, the same book as it happens, in their forties.

Both also admire the same women: the strong, self-supporting, and independent immigrant hired girls who – with the exception of Antonia – never marry or have children.

This brings up the inevitable question of whether Cather was a lesbian and transposed herself into Jim’s character in order to write inconspicuously.

I’m an agnostic on the “Was Willa Cather a lesbian?” question (if that is actually the right question). That she sometimes dressed as a man and used the nickname “William” at university, and that she lived for nearly 40 years with the editor Edith Lewis, are generally known and rather indicative facts.

Whether Cather had sex with Edith or other women is, to the best of my knowledge, unknown and I believe it is equally unknown what Cather considered herself to be, sex or no sex. Cather’s opinion is the only valid one in the matter, of course, and she is beyond the means of telling.

Which leaves the questions of what My Antonia meant to Cather a tantalizing mystery which gives the novel, to me, some extra shimmers of meaning.

My Antonia – The Great America Novel?

This is the crown that Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby has worn for decades but I wonder if he didn’t steal it from Cather.

For all their differences, both The Great Gatsby and My Antonia are books profoundly occupied with the past and how happiness resides there rather than the present. They both locate the past in the Midwest and the present in New York City. They are both occupied with a woman from the past, Daisy Buchanan in The Great Gatsby and Antonia in Cather’s novel. And they both derive their greatest emotional power by evoking the natural world of the new continent before it came to be corrupted by men and society.

In Gatsby, it is Nick Carraway dreaming on the last page of the novel of the “fresh, green breast of the new world” the Dutch sailors first saw when they arrived in America, and concluding, “So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”

In My Antonia, this fresh world still exists during Jim and Antonia’s childhood, although it slowly disappears as they age.

Indeed, the great thematic arch of My Antonia is the parallel motion of Jim growing from child to adult, and moving from the natural world to the city. Jim spends his childhood on farms in Virginia and then the great unsettled prairie. As an adolescent, he moves into a small country town. As a young man, he goes the University of Nebraska in Lincoln and then Harvard in Boston. As an adult, he settles, marries, and works in New York City.

There Jim finds a world of money and machines, work and relationships as unsatisfactory as Fitzgerald’s characters found it. The difference is that for Jim his old life isn’t utterly irretrievable.

In the last line of the novel he tells us, speaking of himself and Antonia, “Whatever we have missed, we possessed together the precious, the incommunicable past.”

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There was no sex in Western literature until 1857.

This is an exaggeration and a simplification of course. (You are reading this on the internet after all.) But not by as much as you might think. Sex does play a role in literature before 1857, but it is very seldom a straight-forward one. Between…

Beowulf (ca 800 to 1,100 CE) and Leaves of Grass (1856)

… there is very little direct examination of sexual desire. Sex is there, of course, but it is always contained within a related topic. Passion is one such topic, giving desire nobility and a certain amount of respectability with its parallels to spiritual ecstasy and religious transcendence.

Madame Bovary - History of Sex in Western LiteratureTo conceive a great passion was certainly admirable. To give in to it was less so – although somewhat understandable – unless you happened to passionately repent afterwards, in which case you were back in the clear, and also had something new to do with all that animal energy.

Love was another one of these topics, a step down from passion in terms of intensity, but a step up in terms of stability, and was perfectly respectable.

This is not to say that passion and love are not valuable human experiences, or that they can’t exist along with desire, or all the literature dealing with either is false.

But the language of passion and love are also a means of not talking about sexual desire, or a means of excusing it, or most importantly a means of dismissing physical desire’s power, whether it’s tales of courtly love, or the story of Emma and Mr. Knightley, or Walt Whitman who with his great moving exuberance unites the body and soul together.

When sex does appear in Western literature before 1857, it is played for comedy through lower-class characters, such as Chaucer’s Wife of Bath or Henry Fielding’s Tom Jones or, much more explicitly, Cleland’s Fanny Hill.

There are more troublesome outliers to muddy the picture. (Did I mentioned you were reading this on the internet? Okay good.)

The Decameron comes to mind and the work of the Marquis de Sade. But let’s agree for the sake of my personal convenience that these are exceptions that prove the rule

Madame Bovary (1857)

Flaubert’s novel caused a scandal and it’s not hard to see why. In Madame Bovary, he both plainly describes sexual desire and attacks the language in which it had previously been discussed.

Flaubert’s language seems quite tame by today’s standards, but he left no doubt about what he meant. For example, during a meeting with a lover, Flaubert writes that “[Emma] tiptoed over on bare feet to check once again that the door was locked, and in one motion she shed all her clothes; — pale and silent and serious, she fell upon him, shivering.”

Flaubert is just as direct when comes to the romantic language of “passion”. Emma’s first lover, Rodolphe, deliberately and cynically uses that language, and plays the role of the passionate lover, to seduce Emma, and Emma willingly embraces the role, out of a desire for something other than the stifling, self-satisfied, and clueless adoration of her husband Charles.

She again embraces the role with her second lover, Leon, and embraces it more desperately the more she senses the intensity of their relationship fading, and the more she feels the consequences of her deceptions bearing down on her.

Flaubert may have been the first voice to speak plainly about sex and to decouple the physical act from the language of passion and love, but he was followed by a long silence. It seems that Western literature needed the massive social disruption caused by the First World War to make books like …

Ulysses (1922) and Lady Chatterley’s Lover (1928)

… possible. Joyce’s Ulysses is quite explicit about sex, but it wasn’t the perfect book to break the taboo, largely because it was so difficult for many readers to understand.

Lady Chatterley - History Sex Western LiteratureLady Chatterley’s Lover did a better job with its plain speaking, and caused a scandal. But instead of silence, these books were soon followed by others, such as Miller’s Tropic of Cancer (1934). Lady Chatterley and Tropic of Cancer were involved in obscenity trials as late as 1960, but these failed, and the subject of sex became ubiquitous in books by the end of the decade.

I don’t see this change as an unqualified success. A great deal of sex in books these days ranges from the merely gratuitous to the frankly pornographic, and is rendered with such an appalling, puzzling, frequently hilarious lack of skill that it can chase you right back to Jane Austen.

On the other hand, the fact of sexual desire, and the fact that desire demands satisfaction, are different matters. These need to be addressed in literature because, like in life, they don’t go away just because they’re ignored. And when desire and love are denied, between consenting adults not restrained by other promises, this denial blights the soul. We can put up with the occasional internet sensation trilogy to gain that.

Massey Content Related to A Brief History of Sex in Western Literature

My 100 word parody of 50 Shades of Grey

My 7 rules for writing sex scenes

My 100 word review of Madame Bovary

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Benjamin Franklin author of The Drinker's DictionaryAmong his many achievements, Benjamin Franklin was the publisher and editor of The Pennsylvania Gazette, which offered news, opinion, and humor to its readers.

The humor includes “The Drinker’s Dictionary” brought out by Franklin in January 1736. The piece begins with a condemnation of drunkenness I don’t take with complete seriousness since Franklin is also famous for saying “Beer is proof God loves us and wants us to be happy”.

In any case, The Dictionary features more than 200 “round-about Phrases” or slang terms “to signify plainly that A MAN IS DRUNK.”

Some of this slang does not make much sense, having grown enigmatic over the past 270 years. However, I think that makes it funnier, the way some drunk men become more amusing as they make less sense. Here is a selection of my favorites:

B. He’s Biggy, Boozy, Bowz’d, Buskey, Buzzey, Bungey. He’s kiss’d black Betty.

C. He’s been too free with the Creature. Sir Richard has taken off his Considering Cap.

G. He’s Glad, Groatable, Gold-headed, Booz’d the Gage, As Dizzy as a Goose.

J. He’s Jolly, Jagg’d, Jambled, Going to Jerusalem, Jocular, Been to Jerico, Juicy.

P. He’s as good conditioned as a Puppy. He’s been among the Philippians. He’s contending with Pharaoh.

R. He’s Rocky, Raddled, Rich, Religious, Lost His Rudder, Ragged, Rais’d.

S. He’s Steady, Stiff, Stew’d, Stubb’d, Soak’d, Soft.

W. He’s Wise. He’s Wet.

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The copy of James Joyce‘s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man I own was published by Compass Books (The Viking Press) between 1956 and 1960.

Inside the front and back covers are lists of additional books for sale from Compass which the publisher describes this way: “Reprints of outstanding fiction, drama, nonfiction, and poetry in handsome inexpensive editions.”

Here is a scan of the lists. You should be able to make it big enough to read by clicking on it.

Portrait Artist Joyce - books

The thing that struck me is the names I didn’t know. Many of the mid-century usual suspects among writers in English are here. Steinbeck. Greene. A lot of D.H. Lawrence (no thanks!). Amis. More Joyce. Kerouac. Bellow. Trilling.

But who is Malcolm Cowley? And Rumer Godden? Are they okay writers who have gently sunk into more or less deserved obscurity? Or have I just discovered more holes in my education, as if there weren’t enough already.

Here are details and a few other titles that grabbed me:

A Candle for St. Jude and An Episode of Sparrows and The River by Rumer Godden.

Exile’s Return and Writers at Work by Malcolm Cowley.

The Love Letters of Phyllis McGinley

The Wilder Shores of Love by Lesley Blanch. (The Fifty Shades of Grey of its day, perhaps?)

Radiation: What It Is and How It Affects You by Jack Schubert and Ralph E. Lapp. (How I miss the Cold War.)

If anyone knows these authors and has an opinion about their work, I’d love to hear it. Otherwise, I guess they are tidbits of trivia to start your weekend.

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James Joyce' A Portrait of the Artist as a Young ManIs selfishness an obligation of genius? If so then Stephen Dedalus, the focus of James Joyce’s brilliant semi-autobiographical novel A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man meets his responsibilities in full.

The book follows Stephen as he grows from a young child to a sin-and-salvation obsessed teenager to an ambitious university student preparing to leave his home, country, and religion, and forge his own soul as a free artist.

Portrait deserves its acclaim as one of the founding works of modernism. Joyce uses his famous stream of consciousness technique to convincingly render Stephen’s inner voice, which he interweaves with dialogue, descriptions, sermons, and diary entries. The story is built on thematically linked episodes, rather than conventional plot and conflict, and rewards the attention required from readers to follow it.

Joyce regards Stephen Dedalus as the model of what a writer should be (an early draft of the novel was called “Stephen Hero”) but it is his character’s spectacular self-concern that stands out as much as the spectacular potential of his talent.

Stephen Dedalus thinks about no one but himself. He is indifferent to the poverty of his parents and younger siblings, while carelessly neglecting the university classes they struggle to afford. He values his friends largely as sounding boards for his ideas. And he refuses his pious mother the comfort of attending a service for a religion in which he no longer believes, holding his fine scruples higher than her single request.

Perhaps great artists need to ruthlessly commit themselves solely to the creation of their art. Perhaps this is an obligation of genius. But it is not a pretty one.

Related Content on James Joyce

You’ll find my review of Finnegan’s Wake (actually totaling 100 words) as part of this post.

Here is an interesting article on Finnegan’s Wake by Michael Chabon. Aside from trying a little too hard to out-Joyce Joyce, I like Michael’s thoughts quite a bit.

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I told kiwiskan (she has nice photos of New Zealand) that I would post this Wordle of the Christian Gospels. I used text from the internet that had a RSV feel to it and that looked right with spot-checking, but I can’t vouch for the accuracy of the whole. Here’s the Wordle:

Wordle of the Gospels of the Christian Bible | Peter Galen Massey

That the word “Jesus” really pops was no surprise to me. That the word “one” pops did surprise me. I had to look far harder than I liked to find the word “love”.

At least “hell” does not make an appearance as far as I can tell. That may be a disappointment to more conservative believers. They seem quite keen on the fiery pit, and are always declaring almost everyone is going there, excepting themselves (neat trick, that). I hope they will bear up under the disappointment. The word “evil” makes a small appearance as a consolation.

By the by … Josh at the Cognitive Turn first introduced me to Wordles through a post on Shakespeare’s Hamlet. You can read the post here.

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Moby Dick by Herman MelvilleFew American novels put off the general reader like Herman Melville’s Moby Dick. And the general reader isn’t entirely wrong to be put off.

Moby Dick is a genuinely strange work of art. For a book published in 1851, it’s more modernist text than 19th-century story, and might actually qualify as the first existentialist novel, if you take the White Whale to be the embodiment of a meaningless and hostile universe. Moby Dick is dense and it is difficult.

But it’s not as dense or as difficult as its reputation. It’s a pretty good sea-faring yarn. And it is a FUNNY book, at least until Ahab stomps onto the deck of the Pequod and sucks all the humor out of Ishmael and Queequeg, and the voyage in general, with his doomed, megalomaniac pursuit of revenge.

Now, there is some heavy going in this Melville novel and the first-time reader trying to decide how to read Moby Dick might choose to conserve his or her resources by “skimming” selected chapters. Father Mapple is a famous character, but Chapter 8 (“The Pulpit”) and Chapter 9 (“The Sermon”) could deter anyone from reading further for fear of discovering much much more of the same.

The many expository chapters, in which Melville discourses at length on every possible topic related to whales and whaling, also pose a problem for those picking up the novel for the first time.

To skip these chapters entirely would be to abstain from many of Moby Dick’s pleasures, particularly since Ishmael’s jaunty comic voice adds an agreeable tone of parody to these chapters.

At the same, there are a lot of them, and Melville is not always brief. So new readers would do well to pick and choose among chapters as they make their way through the book. For example, Chapter 32 (“Cetology”) and Chapter 42 (“The Whiteness of the Whale”) in their concentration and length are prime candidates for reading at a later date.

Which is not to say you should never read them. One of the great advantages of Moby Dick is that first-timers will do little violence to their understanding of the book’s story if they don’t read it straight through. Many of the chapters can stand on their own, inviting you to dip into the book where and as the mood possesses you. It also allows you to assemble your understanding of Moby Dick piece by piece, as if it were a 500-page jigsaw puzzle, rather than make a grimly determined march from the first page through to the last.

Finally, a copy of Moby Dick that includes reference materials is a big help. The Norton Critical Edition of Moby Dick includes maps, a glossary of nautical terms, and explanations of whaling and whalecraft with illustrations, all of which make Herman Melville’s book easier and more enjoyable to read.

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Crime and Punishment by Fyodor DostoyevskyWhen I picked up Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoyevsky, I was expecting it to be dense, dull, and depressing – especially since the background materials I read stated that Dostoyevsky wrote Crime and Punishment as an explicit critic of certain radical theories that were current in 1860s Russia, including utilitarianism and rationalism.

It’s not a good sign when a novel has a thesis. This is usually an indication you are about to be treated to a bunch of cardboard characters clomping around mouthing platitudes, engaging in fake debates, and delivering essay-length monologues while sitting in a café smoking, humping each other, or bravely defying some oppressive bureaucrat or petty despot.

So I was pleased when I found Crime and Punishment to be a wilder, stranger, more flawed, more chaotic, more puzzling, and ultimately more engaging book than I expected.

Dostoyevsky, by all accounts, meant to deliver a lecture pretending to be a novel. He ended up creating a work of art. Here’s how (with a truck-load of spoilers in the discussion).

Crime and Punishment: A Black Comedy?

The first indication that I was following Dostoyevsky down his own particular rabbit hole, rather than sitting in his classroom dutifully taking notes, was that long passages of Crime and Punishment were both horrible and funny.

An early example is what happens after Raskolnikov, the handsome and arrogant law school drop-out who is the novel’s central character, famously murders an old pawnbroker and her sister. Raskolnikov falls into a fever that seems physical, emotional, and spiritual all at once.

But instead of taking us into Raskolnikov’s apparently tortured mind, Dostoyevsky focuses on his friends, who cheerfully encourage him to get better while chatting about mutual acquaintances or who view him as a fascinating case of morbid psychology or some undefined nervous complaint.

Another example is the character of Porfiry Petrovich, the detective assigned to solve the murders. Porfiry is short and stout, with a soft round face and a figure Dostoyevsky describes as “somewhat womanish” who laughs and titters through nearly every conversation he has.

Yet this comic-figure of a man is also Dostoyevsky’s figure of vengeance. Porfiry is convinced of Raskolnikov’s guilt early in the book, pursues him with relentless guile, and attempts to drive Raskolnikov to confess either to the police or in a suicide note when he concludes there isn’t enough evidence to arrest him.

My final example. After 500 pages of anguish and self-examination, Raskolnikov goes to the police station to confess. Here is the high dramatic moment. Here is the finale of the novel. What happens?

Raskolnikov encounters a pompous, idiot lieutenant who babbles on about nonsense so incessantly that Raskolnikov actually gives up and leaves. A few minutes later, Raskolnikov returns, tries again, and this time manages to get the lieutenant to shut up long enough to confess.

These are odd, distracting, irrelevant choices if you want to advance a narrow moral argument. But they are excellent ones if you want to explore the strangeness, complexity, unpredictability, and absurdity of life. Which is what artists do. And that is what Dostoyevsky did, I think, despite his intentions to the contrary.

Iago, Raskolnikov, Meursault: The Reasons for the Crime Are … What?

For a thesis book to examine whether it is moral to commit murder, it is important for the author to clearly establish the reasons the character committed murder before he can show why those reasons are wrong.

But here’s the problem. Dostoyevsky doesn’t. Instead, he gives us a Chinese menu of possible motives, none of which are particularly convincing even to Raskolnikov himself.

The best example of this is in Chapter IV of Part V when Raskolnikov confesses he murdered the two women to Sonya , the virtuous naïve Christian girl who loves Raskolnikov unconditionally and who also happens to be a prostitute. (I’m not making that up.)

Anyhow, first, Raskolnikov tells Sonya that he murdered the women because he wanted to be like Napoleon, who pursued his grand ambitions without regard for conventional morality. Then he tells Sonya he murdered for money, so he could finish his education and support his family. Then he tells Sonya he murdered the old woman because she was a “louse … a useless, loathsome, harmful creature.” Then he says the reasons he committed the murders are that he is “vain, envious, malicious, base, vindictive and … well, perhaps with a tendency to insanity.” Then he blames the murders on “sulkiness”. Then he serves up a Will to Power argument. Then he agrees with Sonya that the devil made him do it. Then he says he did it for himself. Then he goes over all these reasons all over again and concludes, I’m so unhappy!

As the basis for a thesis, this is a hot mess. As a portrait of humanity it is – well, some of you might think it a hot mess too – but I think it is brilliant. And a century ahead of its time.

It has become fashionable, based on the latest cognitive and behavioral science, to conclude human beings are deeply irrational creatures who use reason not to guide their actions, but too justify them after the fact. It is also an established principal, at least among the modernist writers, that the more closely you examine the human character, the more ambiguous and ungrounded in some final essence the human character seems to become.

I tend to think of this vision of humanity in terms of classic (or Newtonian) mechanics and quantum mechanics. In classical mechanics, matter at a certain size … typically visible to the unaided human eye … behaves in logical, predictable, and consistent fashions. But at the atomic and subatomic level, all hell breaks loose with matter doing seemingly impossible things, like being in two places at once, or being both “up” and “down”, or other weird stuff that gives the average person a headache just contemplating. And yet, the visible logical world is founded on the invisible chaotic one.

This seems to me to be a good description of Raskolnikov. He is a quantum character trying to exist in a classical world. And not succeeding particularly well. And upsetting Dostoyevsky’s program in the process.

Also, all this suggests to me that Raskolnikov committed the murders for nothing or because there was an emptiness at his center that made him so indifferent that no action he took, good or bad, finally had meaning. Which I think is the case with Shakespeare’s Iago and Camus’ Meursault, and so I’ve added Raskolnikov to that group.

Crime, Punishment. No Crime, Punishment. Crime, No Punishment. No Crime, No Punishment.

The final reason for thinking Crime and Punishment isn’t a thesis book focused on Raskolnikov’s murders, despite Dostoyevsky’s stated intentions, is the amount of extraneous, irrelevant, contradictory, and confounding characters and plots he includes.

This sounds like a criticism, but what it really means is that Dostoyevsky did not let his school-teacher impulses get in the way of his inspiration, which seems to want to explore the whole spectrum of crimes and punishments, with or without a causal relation between the two.

It starts with Raskolnikov himself, who despite having committed a pre-meditated murder and a impulsive one (Raskolnikov kills the old woman’s sister when she surprises him during the crime), gets all of 8 years in prison.

Now I am not familiar with standards of punishment in 19th century Russia, but this sounds a little light to my American but none the less opposed to the death penalty ears, and was a bit surprising to Raskolnikov himself.

There are also unpunished criminals in Crime and Punishment. For example, the character of Svidrigaïlov, a depraved landowner who is suspected of several murders and sexual assaults, gets away free from the law (although he does commit suicide in one of the novels most persuasive and harrowing chapters). There is also Luzhin, a sadistic bully who likes to prey on women he perceives to be helpless.

We also find punished innocents. Sonya becomes a prostitute in a desperate attempt to keep her family, especially her younger step-siblings, from starvation. These step-siblings themselves suffer from the drunkenness of their father and the angry despair, then madness, then death by consumption of their mother.

Finally, there are unpunished innocents such as Raskolnikov’s cheerful and loyal friend Razumikhin, who happily marries Raskolnikov’s sister, and the detective Porfiry, who succeeds in helping to drive Raskolnikov’s confession and serving the ends of justice.

Dostoyevsky renders many of these characters with a grotesque, Gogol-esque exuberance that also undermines the thesis aspects of the book. The fact of their existence, rather than what the characters mean or what “morals of the story” Dostoyevsky wants us to take away with us, seem the real point of the novel.

Which perhaps makes Dostoyevsky like Milton in Blake’s “Marriage of Heaven and Hell” when Blake says

The reason Milton wrote in fetters when he wrote of Angels & God, and at liberty when of Devils & Hell, is because he was a true Poet and of the Devils party without knowing it

But I think Dostoyevsky is more like the Oracle of The Matrix movies when she talks about a character called the Architect. She says the Architect’s role in the movie is to “balance the equation”. She tells Keanu Reeves her role is to “unbalance it”.

Fyodor set out to be the Architect. He winds up being the Oracle.

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Henry V by William ShakespeareIn Henry V, Shakespeare finds his “muse of fire” and she blinds us with her dazzling light.

Henry V is a play of almost ridiculous dramatic richness in which the scrappy, underdog Harry wins the battle of Agincourt, seizes his rightful French throne, and gets the King’s daughter. Hooray!

Except the war is justified by dubious arguments and provoked by the English clergy, who are eager to distract Henry from confiscating their wealth. Henry captures the French town of Harfleur after threatening genocide. He orders the slaughter of prisoners and leaves 10,000 French knights and soldiers dead on the field. Every friend of his youth, except one, is gone. They die in the battle, by execution after Henry’s judgment, or in the case of Falstaff, cold in bed with a wandering mind and a heart broken by the king.

In the end, it all comes to naught. The last lines of the play tell us Henry dies young, leaving England to be misruled by his infant son and a group of nobles who lose all that Henry won and spill more blood. But it was still worth it and Henry is still a hero. Right?

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Bend Sinister Vladimir NabokovFor most of his life, Vladimir Nabokov declared himself indifferent to politics and expressed his satisfaction with never having joined any group or participated in any organized human activity.

Nabokov insisted that there were no “messages” in his work. He expressed contempt for literature that discussed general ideas, offered social commentary, dealt with everyday “reality” (a word Nabokov frequently put in quotes), or promised human interest.

Instead, Nabokov said he valued books that were grounded in the imagination and talent of the specific writer, and which offered aesthetic bliss which he recognized by a thrill in his spine.

Nabokov’s books seemingly confirm these principles. They are deeply idiosyncratic; full of dense word play, complex patterns, and recondite references; and deliver a great deal of what looks like misanthropy.

All of this argues you won’t find a trace of politics in Nabokov’s work just as he claimed. But here’s the thing. I don’t believe him. And neither should you.

The first reason you shouldn’t believe Nabokov is he knew from personal experience that indifference to politics does not stop politics from affecting you.

Nabokov and his family escaped the Russian Revolution in 1917. His liberal politician father was assassinated by Russian fascists in 1922. Nabokov fled Nazi Germany in 1933 and soon to be Nazi-conquered France in 1940 to protect his family and in particular his wife, Vera, who was Jewish. His brother Sergey died in a German concentration camp, where he was sent after speaking out against the Nazis.

The second reason you shouldn’t believe Nabokov is that while he may have bragged about never having joined any group, he also took great pride in his adopted country of the United States.

Strong Opinions Vladimir NabokovNabokov described himself as “American as April in Arizona” and said he felt a “suffusion of warm, light-hearted pride” when he showed his American passport at European borders (Strong Opinions, p. 98). He kept his US citizenship, and continued to pay American taxes, even after he and Vera moved to Switzerland.

By contrast, Nabokov was outspoken and unrelenting in his contempt for the leaders of the Soviet Union and the vast harm they had done to the Russian nation. Nabokov also had no problem arguing with the American liberals who continued to embraced Soviet propaganda long after they should have known better.

The third reason you shouldn’t believe Nabokov is that he consistently stated that the worst act a human being could commit was an act of cruelty. He believed that cruelty was the essence of all tyrants, and it is cruelty that he condemned in all his major novels.

This condemnation of cruelty can be hard to see because of Nabokov’s techniques as a writer, however.

Nabokov never wavered in his dislike of plainly written novels with obvious messages, and this dislike was reinforced by his observation that bad writers and bad leaders were much alike.

Nabokov saw bad writers and bad leaders as equally trite, vulgar, and stupid. They both thought and wrote and spoke in a debased language of general ideas, and both believed that human beings can be reduced to a few general “types” that are easily defined by commonplace characteristics.

Nabokov expresses this idea most succinctly in his short story, Tyrants Destroyed, when he wrote, “the real human being is a poet and [the tyrant] is the incarnate negation of a poet” (The Stories of Vladimir Nabokov, p. 446).

Nabokov also seems to have understood that the bad writer, especially the bad writer with a good reputation, actually legitimized the propaganda of a dictatorship’s officially sanctioned authors. If Balzac or Lawrence or Camus were first-rate artists, rather than second-rate scribblers, then the novels of approved Soviet writers could also be great works of art rather than tools of manipulation and misinformation.

So Nabokov responded by creating a highly personal – sometimes, stubbornly personal – body of work that emphasized the uniqueness of his characters and the originality of his imagination.

This approach, in itself, was an attack on authoritarian states like the Soviet Union, which insisted that the group was more important than the individual and which were threatened by any work that didn’t enthusiastically celebrate the state’s manifold virtues in a manner easily understood by the average person.

Pnin Vladimir NabokovNabokov’s work was also a relentless assault on cruelty. Nabokov didn’t usually link cruelty directly to a dictator, although the tyrant Paduk in the novel Bend Sinister is an exception. Instead, Nabokov created brilliant, charismatic monsters who blinded readers to their viciousness, monsters such as Humbert Humbert in Lolita, Kinbote in Pale Fire, and to a lesser degree Van Veen in Ada.

Nabokov could also take the side of those who suffered cruelty, most obviously in the characters of Professor Timofrey Pnin (a refuge from Soviet Russia like Nabokov) and  the philosophy professor Adam Krug from Bend Sinister who is helpless to stop the bungling thugs of that book’s tyrant from murdering his only child. I also believe he is quietly on the side of Lolita and Lucette Veen in Ada, and not the dazzling beasts who abuse them.

As usual, Nabokov expressed it best. In October 1971, when Nabokov was 72 and had finished writing all his major works, he said this to the interviewer Kurt Hoffman (Strong Opinions, p. 193):

“I believe that one day a reappraiser will come and declare that, far from having been a frivolous firebird, I was a rigid moralist kicking sin, cuffing stupidity, ridiculing the vulgar and the cruel – and assigning sovereign power to tenderness, talent, and pride.”

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