Posts Tagged ‘russia’

Fromm is a social psychologist from the last century, and I’ve been working my way through his works a little at a time. This book attacks the idea that in 1950s America, healthy and normal were interchangeable concepts. Fromm begins by asking the question, are we sane? Is this a sane society? The answer, of course, is no. He determines this by examining the suicide and murder rates, which were already unusually high in the United States.

The next stage could be a bit controversial: determining what a person needs, regardless of culture. Making claims for universality is always a little dodgy, and although a European emigrant to the United States has had experience of several different cultures, his background doesn’t necessarily qualify him to discuss every culture. But since he’s focused on mine, I found his five needs to be relevant.

  1. Love. We need other people; not just any people, we need people who are similar to ourselves who welcome us. We need to feel like we belong. The failure of loving others productively is narcissism.
  2. Creation. He expresses it as transcendence, but I find that any explanation that uses the word ‘transcend’ becomes excessively numinous. We need to make stuff. I used to make blankets and sweaters, but now I’m making brownies and pies and casseroles. Sometimes I make poems or stories. Sometimes I add color to figurines at work. I like to make music. When we lose faith in our ability to create, we destroy. Later on, Fromm uses this need to explain why laziness is a capitalist construct and only exists when the work-life balance is skewed.
  3. Roots. Glancing back at the idea of love, we need to have a sense of our own origins. If we’re successful, we can distill that universal love into a positive feeling for those people we grew up with; if we’re not, then there’s incest to fall back on. Fromm really takes Freud to task here, arguing that his Oedipus complex and incest drives are abnormal, not part of healthy human development. He points out how ridiculous it is to assume that babies and young children have developed the sexual instincts of adults.
  4. Identity. We need to know who we are, apart from all the groups we belong to – family, community, nation, fandom, etc. Failure to establish an identity leads to conformity to the group. When we think back on the 1950s, it’s the conformity that seems most prominent in our cultural memory, but trauma has a way of forcing individuality on us, and World War II led to the expression of a lot of things that people didn’t want to face. If there’s repression, there has to be something trying to break free, and little packets of individual identity were breaking free all over the place. Kerouac’s On the Road was published in the 1950s, though most of those journeys took place in the 1940s, right after the war. He served in the US Navy for about a week.
  5. Belief. He talks in terms of orientation, which again is a little more abstract than is helpful for me. This is where he talks about reason – some people form beliefs based on observation and rational thought. They might be Christians or Muslims or atheists or Hindus, the thing believed in isn’t important, but the important thing is how they arrive at this belief. Less successful people grab onto superstitions and are guided by imagination rather than reason. Yes, a creative imagination is important; but CS Lewis didn’t believe Narnia really existed and that he could find it by poking around in the wardrobes in his home. A bird that is given food at random times will look for a cause to the random times, and will construct a ritual that it believes will produce the food. If it fluffs its wings just right, or whistles the precise tune, it believes it can cause the food to appear, even if it is still random. Even if the rituals don’t work, the belief persists. People aren’t much different.

 

The rest of the book (most of it) looks at the basis of society and asks whether it can promote these needs in the form it took then. There’s a lot of talk about authoritarianism, as in his previous books, but the thing that sticks out to me here is the commodification of people. Foucault would later write about this more extensively, the way that human beings are quantified and reduced to numbers, abstractions. Fromm takes a lot of time to talk about alienation, the way that we become abstractions to ourselves. It’s all right, even necessary, to work with other people, but when you start seeing yourself as a cog in a machine then something’s wrong. Human life is infinitely more complex and more valuable than the machinery we produce, and ignoring all of the value that people have and caring only for a small part of them is a destructive act.

Fromm also gets into Marxism, and the ways that people have distorted what was essentially a good idea. He really gets excited about socialism, of which I approve. He talks about the Russian attempt and explains how communism isn’t socialism (no matter what they name their republics), and all the ways Stalin got it wrong.

I have to admit that I started losing interest in this later part. I don’t have a strong background in understanding economic or political systems, and that made his arguments a little hard to follow. Also, times have changed, and some of his analyses aren’t relevant sixty years later. Some of it is also just depressing, as we in the United States keep clinging to an extreme form of capitalism that has produced an authoritarian president who is doing everything he can to destroy the country and make himself richer. It’s all quantities and numbers without an attention to the humanity being crushed to make blood wine for him and his fellow one-percenters. Trump’s election is a product of the alienation endemic to capitalism, and I could say some similar things about Bolsonaro. I just hope we can get rid of these bastards soon; I’m not trying to rob them of their human complexity (though some people do), I’m just saying that they are making bad decisions and creating unnecessary suffering for millions of people and I’d like it to stop.

I sometimes talk about being in favor of socialism, but to me that’s really only a second-best system. My ideal would be anarchy, people living quietly in peace without needing to be governed by an external authority. The problem with anarchy is, people are horrible, and left to themselves would rape and kill less aggressive people like me and swipe all our stuff. Because people suck, government is necessary. Because politicians suck, government is most effective on a smaller scale. Trying to govern however many millions of people there are in the United States with a single organization is sort of idiotic. Smaller countries, smaller communities, would work better. Fromm’s suggestions for creating a sane society are a little idealistic and unrealistic, given the nature and temperament of Americans, but maybe we could build a new society somewhere else. If Trump’s supporters get what they want and we’re all expelled to Big Gay Island somewhere, I’d like to think we’d make something better than what we’d be leaving. I like the fact that being gay in America means I’m expected to be in touch with my own feelings and respectful of those of others.

Fromm’s book is a little more connected with literature than the previous ones of his I’ve read – he makes a lot of references to Brave New World and 1984, though he spends a lot more time on Brave New World. We sometimes talk about Huxley’s book as instincts gone wild, but the people are much more mechanized (and hence alienated) than in Orwell. He makes frequent references to Kropotkin without explaining any of them, though he is more careful in examining the works of Marx and Engels. He wrote a book about literature before this one, but somehow I skipped it in my chronological reading of Fromm’s works. I’ll circle back to it soon.

It is always impressive to me that books like this can end in hope. People are shitty and create shitty systems to destroy each other, and it takes a lot of imagination and optimism to believe in the possibility of change. I haven’t been feeling the optimism lately. Apparently I read more books in 2018 than in any of the previous five years, and I think it has less to do with self-care and more to do with the need to escape reality. Reading isn’t always productive – it can be a self-comforting, addictive behavior. But I’m not Fromm, and he found hope that the world could improve, and he gave some specific suggestions on how to make it better. I’ll try to make things a little more beautiful where I can, but large-scale social change is beyond me. But if we’d all make things a little more beautiful where we are, it wouldn’t be beyond all of us.

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Once upon a time, The Ex thought I should get some counseling to control my same-sex desires. The priest she sent me to said that he didn’t see being gay as anything bad or requiring counseling, so he talked to me about my parents instead. I feel like that’s what’s going on in my life now – I came back to this house, I’m feeling the anger from when I was divorced, but life keeps handing me books about parent-child relationships. Maybe that’s the real problem: I may actually have dealt with my problems with The Ex, but it’s my parents’ homophobia and lack of support that still enrages me.

This is a book about burying one’s parents. Our first-person narrator Jeff is an unemployed, commitment-phobic child in his mid-thirties. His personality isn’t really strong enough to leave a strong impression, especially not in the high-concept science fiction world he wanders into. It seems odd to me that he should be so young when his parents die, but I suppose some people do still die of disease in their sixties. It’s not as common as it once was, but it could happen. His mother died some time before the beginning of the story, and he was there at her bedside when it happened, so the memory of his mother’s death follows him throughout the book. The novel is divided into two parts, one for his stepmother and one for his father.

Part One is called In the Time of Chelyabinsk, after the town where a giant meteor exploded in the sky. Artis is sick and going to die, so she goes to this cult-like cryogenic freezing place in the middle of nowhere, probably in Russia. I like her name; it reminds me of a cross between Artist and Artemis. Of his two surviving parents, Jeff finds Artis easier to love, but he never responds to her in a filial manner. He calls her by her first name and she is who she is, always herself instead of being identified by her relationship to him. People appear and Jeff gives them names in his head, but they seem to prefer anonymity, being submerged in a group identity. We never learn how they identify themselves, or if they identify themselves as separate individuals.

This part takes place almost wholly within The Convergence, a bunker-like structure designed to preserve the dying wealthy for a time when they can be restored to health. Jeff spends a lot of time wandering around the hallways. It seems designed to remove people from all frames of reference; most of the doors in the halls are decorative instead of leading into rooms, and they tend to be nearly identical. Jeff keeps looking for ways to differentiate, but in my head I only saw the same corridor over and over again. As Jeff wanders the halls, they show video footage of natural disasters, tornados and earthquakes and such, to give the impression that life ‘out there’ is chaotic and frightening, but in here everything is safe and controlled. No nature, no disaster. Science is forestalling death, the ultimate natural event.

And yet, the theory behind the design seems to have been that death is not a part of life, that it removes a person from life even if it’s a relative dying and not herself. Initially the focus is on Jeff’s feelings about Artis dying, which he can only process in this isolation from his daily life, but as he keeps learning about this place the atmosphere gets increasingly conspiracy theory/science cult. The final process feels similar to mummification, with the removal of the organs and sometimes the head. The subjects are promised new, better versions when they’re revived in the technologically advanced future, but it’s still a hospice center in a nuclear bomb shelter. They think they’re living on, but it’s death all the same. Between parts one and two we have a brief interlude of Artis’s thought process after being frozen, and it’s a panicked search for memory of who and where she is, but she can’t find the words for it. Just an endless repetition of searching for a lost identity and place in the world.

In Part Two, Jeff’s father Ross is ready to join Artis. He’s not sick or anything, he just doesn’t want to live without her. Part of this section takes place in the Convergence again, but most of it is in New York as Jeff goes about living his real life. There are some echoes of White Noise here, which helped me feel more comfortable in placing this in the same place in my head as DeLillo’s earlier novels. Jeff is seeing Emma, and she has an adopted son from the Ukraine, Stak. Stak usually lives with his father in Denver, but we meet him on a trip to New York. He’s kind of troubled. While Jeff is dealing with his own daddy issues, he makes an effort to not-quite-parent Stak. It’s not enough, but he does his best. When Stak runs off, Emma slowly disappears from Jeff’s life.

It was easy for me to identify with the characters in White Noise, but it’s harder here in Zero K. One of the things that bothers me about him is the fact that he turns down employment for emotional reasons. I understand that this is part of how Baby Boomers perceive Millennials, but I don’t know anyone who does this. Our fathers aren’t rich and supporting us (as Ross does for Jeff), so we will take any job we can get. ‘It just doesn’t feel right’ is no reason to pass on an opportunity to eat and live in your own place, but the dependence doesn’t seem to bother Jeff. Finally he does find suitable employment as an ethics and compliance officer for a university, but he doesn’t seem as identified with his work as I would expect from his making such a big deal about it.

And then, of course, there’s the relationship with the father, which the book seems to be primarily about. Jeff is one of those adult children of divorced parents who can never forgive his father for being his own person. The only thing that matters to Jeff is relationships, and people only matter to him as their relationship to him. To Jeff, Ross’s only identity is his father, as if his own needs for work and love are unimportant. I see a lot of this in my own family, with my siblings refusing to have a relationship with our dad. I won’t say I’m comfortable with him, but he is my dad, and there are no substitutes for that. Half of my raw materials are from him, so he’s an important influence on my body and personality. I can’t hate him without hating myself, and I choose not to hate myself.

Part Two is In the Time of Konstantinovka, and the Convergence has seen a shift in focus. To me, it seems less religious and more business. The screens no longer show natural disasters – they show footage of the fighting in the Ukraine. Nature is no longer the enemy; other people are. Here in small-town USA we’re pretty far removed from events in the Ukraine, but apparently the fighting hasn’t really ever stopped, since a few years ago when Russia pretty much annexed the Crimea, and the rest of the world just let them. Konstantinovka gets a special mention because it’s the town where a tank ran over a little girl. It seems to me like a civil war, and there are some historical parallels to the way we stole Texas from Mexico, but some people are seeing this as evidence that we’re in a second Cold War. I’m not sufficiently involved in the news to have an opinion on that idea, but I think it’s one that a lot of people in this country would welcome. A Cold War gives us an easy target, a clearly defined enemy nation. We haven’t had that in a while.

As a kid, it seemed like we weren’t against individual Russians so much as against Communism and Conformity, which were pretty much the same thing, a lifestyle more than an economic system. In the last twenty-five years, we’ve become more conformist, I think – instead of Weird putting people outside of society like it did when we were kids, Weird has been adopted as a standard model of American behavior. There are set patterns of being weird that people can accept now, so you have to be weird in the right way.

I wanted to see beauty in these stilled figures, an imposing design not of clockwork bodies but of the simple human structure and its extensions, inward and out, each individual implacably unique in touch, taste and spirit. There they stand, not trying to tell us something but suggesting nonetheless the mingled astonishments of our lives, here, on earth.

Instead I wondered if I was looking at the controlled future, men and women being subordinated, willingly or not, to some form of centralized command. Mannequined lives. Was this a facile idea? I thought about local matters, the disk on my wristband that tells them, in theory, where I am at all times. I thought about my room, small and tight but embodying an odd totalness. Other things here, the halls, the veers, the fabricated garden, the food units, the unidentifiable food, or when does utilitarian become totalitarian.

Was there a hollowness in these notions? Maybe they were nothing more than an indication of my eagerness to get home. Do I remember where I live? Do I still have a job? Can I still bum a cigarette from a girlfriend after a movie?

As with most science fiction, DeLillo is asking questions about who we are, and who we are becoming. If there is a Cold War II, are we the conformists this time? Are we allowing ourselves to become standardized people? Am I myself, or am I WeirdBookNerd33459, a specific variation that loves music, movies, and the fiber arts? And why is it that Microsoft Word underlines my last name as if it were a spelling error, but has no problem with the standardized label in the previous sentence?

Sometimes history is single lives in momentary touch.

Actually, I think that’s all history is. It all boils down to individual people making decisions. Those decisions can have far-reaching consequences, and history is usually composed of more weighty decisions than whether I’m going to eat bacon and eggs for breakfast or not, but still, it’s people choosing. The study of history consists of understanding why people choose the things they do and what the consequences of those choices are.

I do realize that the novel that serves as my reference point for DeLillo was written thirty years ago, and this book is his most recent. That’s plenty of time for growth and change. But there are still technicolor sunsets and fractured, oddly international families. There are people trying to figure out who they are in a world that is increasingly hard on individualists. Perhaps our real life is assuming more of an Arthur C. Clarke/Philip K. Dick vibe, which is why we have such a sci-fi book from an otherwise realistic author. And maybe I’m not ready to deal with my feelings about my parents’ eventual demise, which is why I’ve written nearly two thousand words while avoiding that topic.

It’s taken me five or six weeks to finish this book. It doesn’t normally take me that long to get through not quite three hundred pages, but the writing is just so dense. It’s like Berdyaev stopped to think for an hour in between sentences, so when reading I’m tempted to do the same. It’s not that I’m uninterested in his ideas, just that they come so thick and fast that the book demands more time than most novels.

This is the sort of grown-up Christianity that I would have loved eight or ten years ago, but it isn’t where I am now, and Berdyaev might take to account certain subsets of Christians, but the basic tenets of the religion are treated as self-evident, and while I love someone who loves his in-group, I’m not always convinced by his repeated assertions that ‘only Christianity’ has figured something out. I don’t see it as all that unique, doctrinally.

In his introduction, he explains a little of his theory – instead of exploring how we know things, he insists that philosophy (and thus epistemology) has to be rooted in the real world, in our lived experiences. I found this part to be exciting because it’s what I believe.

Philosophy is a part of life; spiritual experience lies at the basis of philosophical knowledge; a philosopher must be in touch with the primary source of life and derive his cognitive experience from it. Knowledge means consecration into the mystery of being and of life.

I think it’s important, when developing theories about life and the universe, to begin with what is known and experienced. It’s generally safe to trust the evidence of our five senses, so start there. Intuition is a good next step, but it’s hard to come up with sound ideas when you’re not weighing them against what you know of reality.

Because Berdyaev is a Christian, he sets this up as The Story of Man (I would say Humanity, but he really does seem to mean male humans when he talks about man and men). As such, we hit the four significant events from Christianity’s perspective: Creation, Fall, Redemption, and Judgment. And while that’s true, this is also a book about ethics, exploring the nature of good and evil. So. When Adam and Eve were created, there was no such thing as good and evil. They lived in a garden where those categories didn’t exist, or make sense. God Himself continues to live in this sort of reality, beyond that basic binary. It’s wrong to say that God is good because that distinction belongs to this world only. But then the two ate from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, and the universe was fractured. The Fall takes people out of eternity (the great and eternal now) and introduces time, as well as good and evil. The individual psyche also became divided as a result of the Fall, and we’re all still fragmentary as a result of that original sin.

The human soul is divided, an agonizing conflict between opposing elements is going on in it. The modern man has, in addition to his civilized mentality, the mind of the man of antiquity, of the child with its infantile instincts, of the madman and the neurasthenic. The conflict between the civilized mind and the archaic, infantile and pathological elements results in the wonderful complexity of the soul which scarcely lends itself to study by the old [pre-Freudian] psychological methods. Man deceives not only others but himself as well. He frequently does not know what is going on in him and wrongly interprets it both to himself and to others.

And that part I know is true. I’m seeking wholeness through self-acceptance, but it’s not a quick or easy process. I hide my internal conflicts from myself until they become too heated to ignore, and by that point I’m usually quite upset. This unity is a lifelong quest, not something that can be solved in a few months or a few years.

So then there was Moses and The Law, and what Berdyaev has to say about the ethics of law is quite in line with what most evangelical Christians say when they talk about legalism: it’s bad. Well, to be more specific, it’s only partially just because it ignores the person’s individuality and the effect of circumstances. Law is pitiless, applying the same reductive principles to every person and every situation. The ethics of law reduces us all to robots, cogs in a machine, and could easily be applied by a computer judge. We don’t have computer judges because we recognize the limitations of the ethics of law.

The ethics of law can never be personal and individual, it never penetrates into the intimate depths of personal moral life, experience and struggle. It exaggerates evil in personal life, punishing and prohibiting it, but does not attach sufficient importance to evil in the life of the world and society. It takes an optimistic view of the power of the moral law, of the freedom of will and of the punishment of the wicked, which is supposed to prove that the world is ruled by justice. The ethics of law is both very human and well adapted to human needs and standards, and extremely inhuman and pitiless towards the human personality, its individual destiny and intimate life.

For me, one of the problems with the American legal system is the emphasis on punishment rather than rehabilitation. Collectively, we seem to think that putting people in prison is the only effective way to convince them that crime is bad. We ignore the roots of the problem, which often include poverty, lack of education, and mental illness. In Foucault’s terms, we transform people into delinquents and then imprison them for the delinquency we created. Law upholds the current state of society as the best possible reality and ignores the social problems that lead to crime.

Next is the ethics of redemption, which Berdyaev claims to be the Christian view. I think rather a lot of Christians are still focused on the ethics of law, no matter what they say. It’s one of the things people hide from themselves. The ethics of redemption focuses on the idea of vicarious suffering as a substitution for the law. We don’t have to worry about legal punishments because Jesus bore all the punishment for us, provided that we feel sorry for the bad things we’ve done and try to do good. As with the ethics of law, the ethics of redemption is an incomplete system, not yet what Berdyaev thinks God was really striving for. For example:

A false interpretation of ‘good works’ leads to a complete perversion of Christianity. ‘Good works’ are regarded not as an expression of love for God and man, not as a manifestation of the gracious force which gives life to others, but as a means of salvation and justification for oneself, as a way of realizing the abstract idea of the good and receiving a reward in the future life. This is a betrayal of the Gospel revelation of love. ‘Good works’ done not for the love of others but for the salvation of one’s soul are not good at all. Where there is no love there is no goodness. Love does not require or expect any reward, it is a reward in itself, it is a ray of paradise illumining and transfiguring reality. ‘Good works’ as works of the law have nothing to do with the Gospel and the Christian revelation; they belong to the pre-Christian world. One must help others and do good works not for saving one’s soul but for love, for the union of men, for bringing their souls together in the Kingdom of God. Love for man is a value in itself, the quality of goodness is immanent in it.

In other words, focusing on redemption keeps our attention on the division in the world and in ourselves, and I still agree with Buber that being internally divided against oneself is the source of evil. To heal those divisions, we have to try to get beyond good and evil, though Berdyaev has issues with the Nietzsche uses that phrase. He quotes lots of other philosophers, most of whom he has issues with, but he’s a Russian writing in 1931, so his research is dramatically different than it would be today. Lots of Freud, Schopenhauer, Heidegger, Nietzsche, and a long list of Russians who are unfamiliar to me (though I recognize Pushkin, Tolstoy, and Dostoevsky).

Fortunately, there’s a third system: the ethics of creativity. In order to become more like God and get beyond good and evil, we have to do the one thing we know that God does, we have to create. I never was an ex nihilo guy, I always thought there were materials that God used to make the world. Now that I’m not so religious, I still think that creation is important, and that I’m not quite myself if I’m not regularly making things. So, higher than law and redemption is the exigency of taking the raw materials of our lives and making something beautiful.

The soul is afraid of emptiness. When there is no positive, valuable, divine content in it, it is filled with the negative, false, diabolical content. When the soul feels empty it experiences boredom, which is a truly terrible and diabolical state. Evil lust and evil passions are to a great extent generated by boredom and emptiness. It is difficult to struggle against that boredom by means of abstract goodness and virtue. The dreadful thing is that virtue at times seems deadly dull, and then there is no salvation in it. The cold, hard-set virtue devoid of creative fire is always dull and never saves. The heart must be set aglow if the dullness is to be dispelled. Dull virtue is a poor remedy against the boredom of emptiness. Dullness is the absence of creativeness. All that is not creative is dull. Goodness is deadly dull if it is not creative. No rule or norm can save us from dullness and from evil lust engendered by it. Lust is a means of escape from boredom when goodness provides no such escape. This is why it is very difficult, almost impossible, to conquer evil passions negatively, through negative asceticism and prohibitions. They can only be conquered positively, through awakening the positive and creative spiritual force opposed to them. Creative fire, divine Eros, overcomes lust and evil passions. It burns up evil, boredom and the false strivings engendered by it. The will to evil is at bottom objectless and can only be overcome by a will directed towards an object, towards the valuable and divine contents of life. Purely negative asceticism, preoccupied with evil and sinful desires and strivings, so far from enlightening the soul, intensifies its darkness. We must preach, therefore, not the morality based upon the annihilation of will but upon its enlightenment, not upon the humiliation of man and his external submission to God but upon the creative realization by man of the divine in life – of the values of truth, goodness and beauty. The ethics of creativeness can alone save the human soul from being warped by arid abstract virtue and abstract ideals transformed into rules and norms. The ideas of truth, goodness and beauty must cease to be norms and rules and become vital forces, an inner creative fire.

This is hardly an original thought with Berdyaev. I’m thinking specifically of Wilkie Collins’s opening to Hide and Seek, where an energetic little boy is forced to stop playing and do nothing on Sunday afternoons because his overbearing father only sees goodness as not doing bad things. That also connects to John Green’s An Abundance of Katherines, where the protagonist’s best friend realizes that he’s been defining his religion and therefore his identity by all the things he doesn’t do. People need something to do, something to create. It’s not that making things is good (though it does make me feel good), it’s that making things is beyond good and evil. Creativity, beauty, and love all come from a place that is beyond those distinctions, so let’s focus our attention there.

At this point, Berdyaev talks about some specific ethical problems, and this part ends up being a third of the book. I found it a bit unfocused, as he drifts from one topic to another in a stream-of-consciousness fashion. Another things that bothers me about this section is the way he elevates tragedy as the best mode of life. I don’t see tragedy as inevitable, and I don’t see it as good. I don’t see tragedy as inherently valuable. I agree with many of the things that he says here, like war creates a complicated reality when it comes to interpersonal violence. I also disagree with him on a lot of things, like homosexual love is unreal because it doesn’t result in the archetypal union of opposites that creates some mystical androgyny. As if people weren’t already inherently androgynous to some extent, or as if that were our goal in falling in love in the first place. To my ears, he writes about love like someone who’s never experienced it, even though he’d been married for quite a long time when he wrote this text. At least he destroys the ideas that marriage is indissoluble and that its purpose is procreation. I think many of his ideas are rooted in his time and place, so maybe if he were writing now he wouldn’t have such outdated ideas about women and gays. Speaking of his milieu, he is writing as an embattled Christian escaping the forced atheism of Communist Russia, so he says horrible things about atheists and communists. His progressive ideas shine brightly because of the dark background of conservatism they’re set in.

Finally, we reach the end, death and what comes after. I started reading faster at this point, maybe because I got better at reading the translation of his writing, or maybe because I didn’t have to work through so many dilemmas. Death is just a transition to another state of being, so Western culture’s erasure of death is toxic and unhelpful. Then he discusses hell, which I found really interesting. Berdyaev sees the discourse surrounding hell as reliant on our ideas about time – this life is a fractured bit of eternity, but for him it doesn’t make sense to punish someone in eternity for things done in time. Eternity isn’t infinite duration of time, it’s the absence of time. Think about that episode at the end of season six of Doctor Who, when River Song destroys time. All historical moments happen simultaneously, so everything is now. If time doesn’t progress in a line, if every moment is simultaneous, then how can it be just to punish someone in this timeless reality for something they did when reality was broken into time? Besides (and for Berdyaev this is an important point), we’re supposed to conquer evil, not build it a house and let it live next door. Good people create hell by condemning others as evil, even more than bad people create it through guilt. Believing in hell puts us back at the ethics of law, punishing people and reducing their entire complex selves to a few actions or attitudes that we find intolerable.

Berdyaev concludes with paradise. It’s not the good place where people go if they’re not in hell – it’s the place beyond good and evil that we all came from. The goal is not for good to defeat evil and cast it out, the goal is to get to a place where the distinction between good and evil is so unimportant it doesn’t exist. Again, this leads us to freedom, creativity, beauty, love, all those bohemian ideals that Shelley and Luhrmann explicitly claim.

There are two typical answers to the question of man’s vocation. One is that man is called to contemplation and the other that he is called to action. But it is a mistake to oppose contemplation to action as though they were mutually exclusive. Man is called to creative activity, he is not merely a spectator – even though it be of divine beauty. Creativeness is action. It presupposes overcoming difficulties and there is an element of labour in it. But it also includes moments of contemplation which may be called heavenly, moments of rest when difficulties and labour vanish and the self is in communion with the divine. Contemplation is the highest state, it is an end in itself and cannot be a means. But contemplation is also creativeness, spiritual activity which overcomes anxiety and difficulties.

In the traditional point of view, evil is defined as acting in opposition to God’s will, so human freedom is the source of evil. That’s why so many religions work at limiting people’s freedom. However, for Berdyaev, freedom predates good and evil. It’s part of the eternal world, the one piece of paradise that we brought with us. Freedom is not evil; it’s beyond those distinctions. As is beauty, as is the creation of beauty.

This year I’ve been making more of an effort to read nonfiction, and I have to say that I still find philosophy hard to read. Philosophers tend to use a specialized vocabulary, so I kept having to look up words like meonic and eschatological. They also use words in idiosyncratic ways, so the translator kept using the word personality when it would have made more sense to me to use personhood or individuality. The philosophers we read in English seldom wrote in English, so a good bit of the difficulty could be that of the translators. Whoever translates Michel Foucault does a fantastic job, and I think with better translators philosophy could be more approachable as text. I suppose then we wouldn’t need philosophy professors to explain it to us, which could put people out of jobs. But I’m not in favor of the elitism that surrounds philosophy, which is just one variety of nonfiction. Regardless of all that, Berdyaev has a lot of good ideas, but I’d like to see him be a little more critical of his own religion. Just because it’s yours doesn’t mean it can go unexamined, and if he had examined it a little more he might have been less prejudiced against people who are different than he is.

untitled

Sometimes I get to the end of a book and joy lodges in my throat like a stone I can’t breathe through until I’ve undammed my eyes and tears flow as freely as love. This one was different. I wasn’t crushed by happiness; I still had to stop reading and give the emotion space, but it was an expanding joy, as if my chest contained the entire universe still gently growing, my heart a world in a sea of constellations, the infinity of space the air I breathe. I loved this book the way I love my own freedom, the limitlessness of my potentiality, the vastness of experiences I have yet to taste.

This book is part of the same project as Byatt’s Ragnarok, which I still love as my favorite book, but this takes a different myth. Winterson explores the story of Atlas, he who carries the world on his shoulders. She pictures him not just as the strongest man in the world, but as a gardener and a father who guarded too jealously what he thought of as belonging to him. So he loses everything he had and has to support the weight of everything that was never his.

Atlas has a role that never changes, so there aren’t many stories about him. There’s his origin, but once he starts carrying a planet he’s stuck. There’s just one other story – the time he meets Heracles. The great hero, in Winterson’s telling, wanders the world with a weapon in one hand and his dick in the other (it’s a short book, shorter than a lot of films, but he beats himself off in front of others twice). She doesn’t see him as being especially bright, but good at tricks and possessing an immense vital energy. Heracles takes the burden so that Atlas can perform one of his tasks for him, then drops the world back on him and scampers off. You can tell Heracles is working-class British by the way he compulsively calls Atlas ‘mate’, as if it’s a conversational tic that doesn’t mean anything, like the way the Brazilian gauchos call each other ‘tchê’ or Americans who grew up in the 1980s call each other ‘dude’. This is the first time they’ve met; what claims to friendship is Heracles trying to invoke?

Heracles also brings Atlas a question, Why? Why must we accept the decree of the gods and submit to Fate? Hera nudges the question forward a bit by reminding him of all the possibilities that every moment contains. But Atlas feels responsible, and old habits are hard to break, so he keeps holding the world on his shoulders. This resonates with me in a lot of ways, but right now I’m thinking of professionally. I never got into education because I wanted to be a teacher; I wanted to read books and talk about them with people, preferably people who would have something intelligent to say in response. For a while it seemed that becoming a literature professor would be a good way to manage that, so I started teaching composition as a way of building toward that, but my applications for doctorate programs were never quite good enough, so I got stuck bearing the weight of teaching. Many people fall into careers tangentially like this and end up loving them; I haven’t. I like to learn, so I read up on teaching methods and styles and such, but unlike when I read novels, in education articles the words turn into a sea that my eyes can float on the surface of without penetrating the depths. I’m working at a library now (in addition to, not instead of, teaching), and in many ways I’m finding it more personally congenial. But with one of my colleagues retiring at the end of the year, I’m being confronted with a choice: do I apply for the full-time teaching job, which would offer financial security the likes of which I have never known, or do I apply for library school and continue to chase the new experience? A good part of this year has been about reassessing priorities and living according to what I love and not what is merely expedient or easy, which probably means that I’m going to choose library school over a teaching career. Thinking in terms of Atlas, teaching is a weight I would gladly shift onto someone else’s shoulders.

Winterson discusses the story in terms of her emotional weight, as an adopted child rejected by the parents who once wanted a child they could not have.

I am good at walking away. Rejection teaches you how to reject. I left my hometown, left my parents, left my life. I made a home and a life elsewhere, more than once. I stayed on the run. Why then, did the burden feel intolerable? What was it that I carried?

My burdens and rejections are different to hers, but the pattern fits. As I mentioned yesterday, I’ve been saying No more than Yes lately, and Winterson uses this same phrasing, but while I do want to say Yes more often, I still think it’s important to take care whom and what I say Yes to. It’s taken me some time to get comfortable saying No, so it seems like that word is a gift from the universe right now, allowing me to choose rather than drift along in the currents of time. No is the rudder I use to steer my ship of Fate, and while I may never reach the harbor I’m aiming at – I may never reach one at all, harbors being as illusive as horizons – manning the helm is my job and I’m not giving it up to impersonal forces or supernatural entities that have no stake in the results. It’s my life, and I’m going to own it.

Which leads us to the Russians. In the United States we tend to think of ourselves as the only astronauts, forgetting that it was the cosmonauts that inspired us to shoot for the moon. The Russians lost a dog in space and were about to put it down when Atlas rescued her. He also loved the space station Mir, which is a word that can mean either peace or the world, which implies that for the Russians the two concepts are blurred.

Atlas spends his immortality staring into space, watching the rocks on Mars, seeing the stars turn in their constellations, galaxies moving through infinity, the entire universe whirling like an Eastern Dervish. Staring at cosmos and wondering why he submits to gods that the world itself has forgotten, Atlas never asks the question, Where did the world sit before I held it? Why is it essential for the world to rest on him? What kind of hubris demands that he carry so much weight? Atlas doesn’t look back to prehistory; his concerns are solely with the future – he only asks, What catastrophe will happen if I put it down? And that question keeps him stuck in his old patterns for millennia. His belief in the catastrophe is his prison. Heracles keeps wandering free, he even liberates Prometheus, but Atlas stays, until Laika the Russian dog shows him the new world he couldn’t see.

Atlas had long ago ceased to feel the weight of the world he carried, but he felt the skin and bone of this little dog. Now he was carrying something he wanted to keep, and that changed everything.

I love this book. It’s weird (Deianeira worrying that one day soon men will no longer want to rape her), it’s funny (Heracles stepping off the world to offer Atlas a hand job), and it’s beautiful (Atlas and his dog walking away from the world into the universe). I wish there were stronger and more descriptive words I could use – everything I think to say seems too dull a tribute.

 

house of the dead

So apparently I’ve given up sleeping. I don’t know why, but this week it’s just been really difficult for me to stay down. Two days a week I’m at work for twelve hours, so I ought to be exhausted, but I still pop awake after a few hours. I suppose there are more stressors in my life than I realize, and I’m probably not dealing with them appropriately.

This book is not nearly so Halloween-y as its title implies. When he was in his late twenties, Dostoevsky was arrested for publishing articles that were inconveniently political, and he spent four years in a Siberian prison. This book was his way of understanding and communicating that experience. This was very early in his writing career, so the effects of it ring out through his better-known works, like Crime and Punishment and The Brothers Karamazov. There are some gestures toward fictionalization, but I tend to think that there’s not much fiction in it, so as I’m discussing this I’ll probably conflate the author with the narrator. I know that’s a logically problematic choice, but I’m going with it.

In many ways, the prison is a microcosm of the society as a whole, or at least as men experience it. There is a strong division between the working class and the moneyed class which prevents them from ever crossing over and making friends. In the United States, we sometimes talk about our society as if we really were all created equal, but the Russians of the nineteenth century have no illusions on this subject. They see humanity as divided between servants and masters, and what you are is what you are. When First-Person Narrator arrives at the prison, he tries to be egalitarian and make friends with all sorts, but they are quick to put him in his place – he was raised in the upper class, so he has no business mixing with the workers. It’s not his social peers that class him off, it’s those who are lower who exclude him.

Some people think that if convicts are well fed and well kept and all the requirements of the law are satisfied, that is all that is necessary. This is an error, too. Everyone, whoever he may be and however down-trodden he may be, demands – though perhaps instinctively, perhaps unconsciously – respect for his dignity as a human being. The convict knows himself that he is a convict, an outcast, and knows his place before his commanding officer; but by no branding, by no fetters will you make him forget that he is a human being. And as he really is a human being he ought to be treated humanely. My God, yes! Humane treatment may humanise even one in whom the image of God has long been obscured. These “unfortunates” need even more humane treatment than others. It is their salvation and their joy. I have met some good-hearted, high-minded officers. I have seen the influence they exerted on these degraded creatures. A few kind words from them meant almost a moral resurrection for the convicts. They were as pleased as children and as children began to love them. I must mention another strange thing: the convicts themselves do not like to be treated too familiarly and too softly by their officers. They want to respect those in authority over them, and too much softness makes them cease to respect them. The convicts like their commanding officer to have decorations, too, they like him to be presentable, they like him to be in favour with some higher authority, they like him to be strict and important and just, and they like him to keep up his dignity. The convicts prefer such an officer: they feel that he keeps up his own dignity and does not insult them, and so they feel everything is right and as it should be.

As with the officers, so with the owners of the means of production. I’ve seen this same fact in working with students – not the ones who come to college, but the teenagers who are having a rough life. When I lived in Washington I sometimes was assigned to the school for ‘troubled’ kids: the ones who have to be escorted to school by law enforcement officers, the school with a padded room for students whose emotions get the better of them. It was a difficult assignment for me because I felt nothing in common with these people, and I lack the firmness they require. I am too familiar and too soft for this population, so they don’t have much respect for me. But I like being who I am, so I’m not going to ‘toughen up’ to satisfy a group that I may never have to work with again. This is why I prefer teaching adults; kids who are like this are still forced to come to school, but this is the type of adult who doesn’t see the purpose of continuing his education, so doesn’t. I won’t deny that some of my students may have fit this category in their past, but by the time they get to the community college they are mature enough to recognize that I teach for their benefit, and that it’s their responsibility to take the benefit from what I teach.

Circling back to the guards, the ones he writes about are seldom the fluffy successful type described above. He talks more about the ones that remind me of the stories of Auschwitz guards, and in some ways the Siberian prison camps were a lot like the German prison camps a hundred years later. The same emphasis on work that doesn’t produce anything, like moving a pile of rocks from one place to another and then back again. The same temptation for the guards to become almost inhumanly violent and cruel.

Tyranny is a habit; it may develop, and it does develop at last, into a disease. I maintain that the very best of men may be coarsened and hardened into a brute by habit. Blood and power intoxicate; coarseness and depravity are developed; the mind and the heart are tolerant of the most abnormal things, till at last they come to relish them. The man and the citizen is lost for ever in the tyrant, and the return to human dignity, to repentance and regeneration becomes almost impossible.

Unlike with the Nazis, though, there is a safe haven: the hospital. Prisoners come to the hospital when they need a rest for a few days, and the doctors are actually kind and lenient with them. Some of the convicts choose a sort of slow suicide: they steep their snuff in vodka, then drink it off. I don’t know the mechanism behind it, but this somehow gives them consumption, from which they die a horrible death. This passage reminds me of some of the stories I’ve heard about people dying of AIDS; I don’t understand why, but AIDS stories always make me extremely emotional.

And now as I write this, I vividly recall the death of the consumptive patient, Mihailov, whose bed was nearly opposite mine, not far from Ustyantsev’s. He died, I remember, four days after I came in. Possibly I have mentioned the case of the consumptives through unconsciously recalling the impressions and ideas which came into my mind at the sight of that death. I knew little of Mihailov himself, however. He was quite young, not more than five-and-twenty, tall, thin, and of extremely attractive appearance. He was in the “special division,” and was strangely silent, always gently and quietly melancholy, as though he were “drying up” in prison, as the convicts said of him. He left a pleasant memory among them. I only remember that he had fine eyes, and I really do not know why he comes back to my mind so distinctly. He died at three o’clock in the afternoon on a bright frosty day. I remember the glowing slanting rays of the sun pierced through the green frozen panes of our windows. The sunshine was streaming full on the dying man. He was unconscious, and lay for several hours in the death agony. From early morning he had scarcely recognised those who went up to him. The patients would have liked to do something for him, seeing his distress; his breathing was deep, painful and raucous; his chest heaved as though he could not get air. He flung off his quilt and his clothes, and began at last to tear off his shirt; even that seemed a weight to him. The other patients went to his help and took off his shirt. It was terrible to see that long, long body, the arms and legs wasted to the bone, the sunken belly, the strained chest, the ribs standing out like a skeleton’s. Nothing remained on his body but a wooden cross and a little bag with a relic in it, and his fetters which might, it seemed, have slipped off his wasted legs. Half an hour before his death the whole ward was hushed, we began to talk almost in whispers. Everyone moved about noiselessly. The patients did not talk much, and then of other things; they only looked now and then at the dying man, who was gasping more and more terribly. At last, with a straying and uncertain hand, he fumbled at the cross on his chest and began pulling it off, as though even that were a weight that worried and oppressed him. The patients removed the cross, too. Ten minutes later he died. They knocked at the door for the sentry and told him. An attendant came in, looked blankly at the dead man, and went to fetch a medical assistant. The medical assistant, a good-natured young fellow somewhat excessively occupied with his personal appearance, which was prepossessing however, soon came in, went up to the dead man with rapid steps that sounded noisy in the silent ward, and with a particularly unconcerned air, which he seemed to have assumed for the occasion, took his wrist, felt his pulse and went away with a wave of his hand. Word was sent to the sergeant in charge: the criminal was an important one and could not be certified as dead without special ceremony. While we were waiting for the sergeant, one of the convicts suggested in a low voice that it might be as well to close the dead man’s eyes. Another man listened attentively, without a word went up to the dead man and closed his eyes. Seeing the cross lying on the pillow, he picked it up, looked at it, and put it round Mihailov’s neck again; then he crossed himself. Meanwhile, the dead face was growing rigid; the sunlight was flickering on it; the mouth was half open; two rows of white young teeth glistened between the thin parched lips.

One of the things that I noticed here, again and again, is that FPN always notices and comments on whether a man is handsome or not. He seems to really enjoy spending time with men who are young and handsome, but he doesn’t expand on why, and this question of why does seem to bother him at times. I’m not saying that Dostoevsky was a closet case; I’m just remarking on a trend. It also seems to me that the convicts have no privacy or personal space, not even to bathe. The bath-house is far too small for them, so they’re packed in as tightly as possible, so tightly that the water runs off of one man and onto his neighbors. It does seem like a great opportunity for some homosexual voyeurism, but Dostoevsky doesn’t go there. FPN sees a mass of limbs but doesn’t get into specifics.

There is a great diversity in this prison – there are some Poles, some Muslims from farther south, and even a Jew. The groups don’t always mix, and the Muslims mostly don’t speak Russian, but sometimes when we read Dostoevsky it seems like Petersburg, Moscow, and a little patch of countryside are all that Russia amounts to, but even at this time it was a vast empire, and convicts from all over got sent to Siberia. The one element of diversity we don’t see is in gender. For the convicts, there are two types of women: good wives and mothers who love unconditionally and are universally absent, and whores. The whores may not be good (or deserve names), but at least they’re here.  There is one exception to this rule, in the story “Akulka’s Husband.” Akulka is a good girl who gets treated like a whore, a passive object for others to project their fantasies on, and so she gets beaten a lot and eventually dies.

I mentioned this as a story – the book is not a continuous narrative. He compresses all of his time into a year, like Thoreau did with Walden, so that we have that same autumn-winter-spring-summer progression that we get in an Austen novel. It’s like someone sat down next to him and said, “So, Dostoevsky, tell me about Siberia.” I recognize it because it’s the same sort of unorganized rambling that I do when someone sits next to me and says, “So, Occ Man, tell me about Saudi Arabia,” or “What was Brazil like?” or “How does someone like you, raised as a Mormon and a true believer, get married, have kids, come out of the closet, get divorced and leave your church?” It’s too big a subject to handle in normal, polite conversation, and the person asking rarely wants a complete answer. It’s taken me a while to figure out how to answer to the other person’s satisfaction – tell a story or two that show a little foreignness but not too much, and make the stories funny. Avoid telling them about the depression and isolation because that’s not what they want to hear. It’s a bit like the first half of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows – they want to hear about the adventure, but they don’t want to know that most of the adventure involves being tensely bored, and they certainly don’t want to feel the tension or the boredom. How does one make these intensely difficult experiences into entertaining nuggets to share at cocktail parties? I’m still working on that. The funny stories don’t spring to mind all the time, so I could talk about the two-foot-high sunflowers or the stray cat that got adopted at the desert compound, or I could talk about tromping through the jungle and drinking out of a stream or walking on a road built by slaves two hundred years ago, or I could talk about how much I loved my ex-wife and that my divorce was just like a straight man’s or how it took me seven years to stop being afraid of my own feelings. Dostoevsky’s book is written from the vantage point of the guy who has just finished the experience but hasn’t yet figured out how to share it.

FPN says that prison is the first time he’s ever spent time with the working class, and from the homogenization of them I’d guess it’s Dostoevsky’s first time too. I grew up among the working poor, but my mother did not, unless you count the maid, and in her stories I always felt that we had somehow come down in the world. We might be the poor children of an air-conditioning repairman, but her father had worked closely with Eisenhower during the War, attended Cornell University, and become a civil engineer for the federal government. Sometimes I can still hear her voice in my head, telling us not to act like the neighbor kids (of whom she did not approve, but we were way out in the country and there was literally no one else to play with), or not to act like a black person (that was for my younger siblings, never for me), or not to act like a fairy (that one was for me alone, never directed at the others), because we were better than all of them. Before I finished high school I had worked out that she was wrong, that no person is better than any other, and that money and culture do not determine a person’s worth, but I had to work that out on my own. Dostoevsky learns that lesson too, but here in prison.

There is no standard by which to measure the soul and its development. Even education itself is no test. I am ready to be the first to testify that, in the midst of these utterly uneducated and down-trodden sufferers, I came across instances of the greatest spiritual refinement. Sometimes one would know a man for years in prison and despise him and think that he was not a human being but a brute. And suddenly a moment will come by chance when his soul will suddenly reveal itself in an involuntary outburst, and you see in it such wealth, such feeling, such heart, such a vivid understanding of its own suffering, and of the suffering of others, that your eyes are open and for the first moment you can’t believe what you have seen and heard yourself. The contrary happens too; education is sometimes found side by side with such barbarity, such cynicism, that it revolts you, and in spite of the utmost good-nature and all previous theories on the subject, you can find no justification or apology.

This is one of the things that we come to Dostoevsky for, this understanding of every person’s individual worth and dignity, what George Eliot describes as ‘sympathy,’ but in this book he’s still developing that understanding. I feel like it hasn’t quite become a habit of mind yet; this is me as a kid on the playground, wanting to be involved but left on the outside because I wasn’t athletic and I talked funny (Boston accent in rural North Carolina). The author hasn’t yet reached his maturity. That makes this book an interesting signpost in his development, but for fans of The Major Novels, the ones in The World Literary Canon, it’s a little disorienting and disappointing.

This author was recommended to me as something completely different, something that could shock me back into myself. I’ve been feeling disconnected from myself, and a shock could be what I need. As I’ve been thinking about it, I’ve realized that I need to get back to the piano. Playing music is important to me, but I’ve been neglecting it. I suppose part of this is that he isn’t in favor of having a piano in the house. I know they’re heavy, but they’re also meaningful. Meaningful things should have weight.

The thing that has struck me about Tagore is not his difference, but his similarity. His title points to the parallels between the domestic and public spheres, which I’ve been fascinated with for more than ten years. Think Sense and Sensibility. In fact, I tend to keep a strict delineation between the two. Which is why I don’t invite people to my house. Living with a family is challenging for me because I have to share decision-making and it’s difficult to have a physical space that is only mine. For instance, we took his daughter to a theme park yesterday, but he doesn’t like roller coasters. I was there to spend time with him, so I didn’t ride them. Do you know how dismal and dull theme parks are if you don’t go on the rides?

There are three narrators, but Bimala is the one I find most important. She’s stuck in a triangle with Nikhil and Sandip. Nikhil and Bimala have been married for nine years. He’s an intellectual, seems to be some sort of magistrate for the district, which is in Bengal, the northeastern part of India. A good bit of Bengal is now Bangladesh. Sandip is Nikhil’s friend, who is working for an independent India. Sandip comes over for a day or two, but he decides to extend his visit because Bimala is a special person. She’s not presented as especially beautiful, but she has something. Nikhil has been trying to encourage her to become his equal, but it’s not working. She just keeps being a traditional Indian wife, which to her means complete submission. The women tend to live separated from men, and Nikhil wants to spend more time with her. It’s countercultural, but it’s not illegal or irreligious. He pushes gently, and she remains unmoved. Her job is domesticity, and that means following strict conventions.

And then Sandip notices her. He doesn’t want some weird blurring of society’s gender roles. He doesn’t really want to bring her into a man’s world. To him, Bimala is a goddess. With him, she feels like the divine embodiment of the nation. She gains confidence, not by being invited to share her husband’s life, but by being put on the culturally approved pedestal. Sandip is really good with her (NB: I didn’t say ‘to her’). The prolonged seduction goes very well for a while; he’s a great manipulator, but not even the best can keep it up indefinitely. Eventually he has to make a direct demand, and she sees what he is but is in too deep to turn back.

With Sandip, it’s all about The Cause. His cause is the country. Under British rule, European goods have been flooding into the country. A vital part of claiming their national identity is rejecting foreign goods. Sandip and his followers use Any Means Necessary – if only one guy is still transporting imports across the river, you sink his boat. It looks like a nonviolent protest, but it’s not really. These people are ruining the lives of the very people they claim to want to save. So when Sandip asks Bimala for money to finance the cause, he asks for too much for her to get on her own. When she has to steal for The Cause, she knows she’s gone too far and starts trying to pull herself out.

Nikhil is very much an All Lives Matter type of guy. I don’t mean that he denies the importance of fighting against discrimination, I mean that he really values all lives. India is not as important as Humanity. He’s sort of a stand-in for Tagore, someone who believes that you can’t take away someone’s livelihood without giving him a life of equal or greater value. Home rule for India is important because of the systematic oppression of the Indian people by the English, not because it’s an inherent good. He has a strong value for people, while Sandip cares more about principles. And Sandip’s principles are ethnocentric and misogynistic. He tells people that he only cares about the country, but he’s really in this for himself. He found a way to rise in caste, so he is taking advantage of the personal benefits without being overly concerned about the Motherland.

My theory of life makes me certain that the Great is cruel. To be just is for ordinary men—it is reserved for the great to be unjust. The surface of the earth was even. The volcano butted it with its fiery horn and found its own eminence—its justice was not towards its obstacle, but towards itself. Successful injustice and genuine cruelty have been the only forces by which individual or nation has become millionaire or monarch.

That is why I preach the great discipline of Injustice. I say to everyone: Deliverance is based upon injustice. Injustice is the fire which must keep on burning something in order to save itself from becoming ashes. Whenever an individual or nation becomes incapable of perpetrating injustice it is swept into the dust-bin of the world.

Sandip is concerned with his own greatness, and he doesn’t care who suffers, because he sees it as his right to be unjust to everyone. The only thing that matters is that Sandip remains comfortable and rises to the top. And yes, his sexual politics are as bad as his public policy.

We are men, we are kings, we must have our tribute. Ever since we have come upon the Earth we have been plundering her; and the more we claimed, the more she submitted. From primeval days have we men been plucking fruits, cutting down trees, digging up the soil, killing beast, bird and fish. From the bottom of the sea, from underneath the ground, from the very jaws of death, it has all been grabbing and grabbing and grabbing—no strong-box in Nature’s store-room has been respected or left unrifled. The one delight of this Earth is to fulfil the claims of those who are men. She has been made fertile and beautiful and complete through her endless sacrifices to them. But for this, she would be lost in the wilderness, not knowing herself, the doors of her heart shut, her diamonds and pearls never seeing the light.

Likewise, by sheer force of our claims, we men have opened up all the latent possibilities of women. In the process of surrendering themselves to us, they have ever gained their true greatness. Because they had to bring all the diamonds of their happiness and the pearls of their sorrow into our royal treasury, they have found their true wealth. So for men to accept is truly to give: for women to give is truly to gain.

As things progress, our three narrators start to realize that they don’t understand each other, but while they phrase it as a gender problem, I think it’s bigger than that. Does any person really know another? There are depths that stay hidden. We are always growing and changing, and even people who know each other well have to ask each other what they’re thinking. There is something isolating about being in existence.

There’s more going on. Think about Burke and Austen – there is no distinction between private and public spheres. Sandip and Nikhil represent their ideologies, the revolutionary new India and the colonial establishment. Bimala is the nation, caught between the two. In Tagore’s schema, the revolution doesn’t care about the individual lives of the poor; it only pretends to so that the leaders can enrich themselves and acquire power. The conservatives try to protect and take care of people. The poor may have only partial freedom, but the boundaries of their lives are invisible, like Pierre’s Ambiguities. The purpose of the maharaja is to make sure they don’t feel the ties that bind them, and Nikhil is good at it. Not good enough to stop Sandip’s influence, but good. His rule is sufficiently relaxed that disorder can grow up fairly quickly because Nikhil will not infringe on the revolutionaries’ right of self-determination. So long as they’re not hurting someone else. Sandip isn’t opposed to hurting others, and he ends up damaging himself in the process. Not physically, but he is disdainful of Nikhil’s intellectualism even though he spends more of his narration time on abstraction than Nikhil. Nikhil is interested in realities; Sandip is interested in justifying his self-centeredness.

So. Passionate manipulator vs intellectual idealist? It reminds me of the current presidential race in America. Sandip is Mr Trump, fighting to advance his position even though he’s unsuited to greater power, and destroying everyone he comes into contact with. He’s like the Russians who engineered a Communist revolution to concentrate an entire nation’s resources in the hands of a select few. Nikhil is like President Obama, idealistic and hopeful, struggling to guide people into happiness without the success he’d like. It’s difficult to make people both free and well behaved. I think Trump’s entire campaign is utter lunacy. The fact that the Republican Party chose a candidate that has no experience in diplomacy is baffling, and the fact that enough Americans admire him that he actually has a good chance of winning the election is proof of massive ignorance. People are afraid, so they trust the one who tells them they are right to be afraid.

In both the book and in reality, Muslims are an issue. For them, there is something more important than national identities or the rights and wrongs of politics. The world is full of suffering, but it’s possible to rise above the suffering by submitting one’s will to God. All kinds of suffering. The flavor of the suffering is immaterial, since suffering is temporary and God gives us the strength to overcome it. Accepting suffering is essential to submission and brings glory to God. These ideas are inimical to revolution, even the type of revolution Trump is working toward. Minimizing one’s own suffering thus is important and healthy, whether a belief in God is involved or not. Minimizing the suffering of others is dangerous and can lead to fanaticism. When a person believes that causing suffering that others submit to brings glory to God, that person is dangerous and the world needs him to have as little power as possible. Causing suffering is bad, I’d even say evil, and people who do it carelessly do not deserve to become President of the United States.

Tagore may not have been shock therapy, but it has gotten me reading again. I’m grateful for the suggestion; it’s provoked the response I needed. Thanks, E.

I read this on Project Gutenberg, which leads me to distrust the ellipses. I read a book on PG once that had whole paragraphs missing. This is a good book, sort of sad, but beautiful. And it’s a warning. Electing Trump will give us the worst case of Buyer’s Remorse in American history. Don’t do it. Do whatever you can to prevent this, even if it means voting for a woman you don’t really believe in. He must be stopped. Some people talk about moving out of the country, but will that be safe? Is there any corner of the world that will be safe if DT has access to the American military?

For the first time in years, I now have a public library card. I haven’t had one since before I got divorced. There’s something about my relationship to the library that has changed in this time; it’s not the home it once was. The books are free, so I want to grab them all, every one that appeals to me, and take them home at once. But then, when I do have them at home, my interest in them is gone. I think that part of the problem is the temporary nature of my association with the book. I feel as if the books I own are a part of me, but library books can never be mine. There’s also the physical experience of the book: I like a book to feel warm and natural in my hand, tree-ish, not covered in cheap plastic. When it comes to books, there’s a certain correlation between love and damage, and it’s hard for me to connect with something so well protected. Fortunately, I have lots of books that I own, including several that I haven’t read yet.

When an experienced reader picks up a book by Umberto Eco, he knows exactly what he will find. Historical conspiracy theories, a bizarre ritual at the climax, and misogyny. Lots and lots of misogyny. Eco’s more successful works are those that provide a reason for this exclusive boys’ club, like The Name of the Rose, which takes place in a monastery on the historical line between the Dark Ages and the Renaissance. I started Baudolino but didn’t finish it because I got to the point where I just couldn’t take any more of the solely decorative female characters. The misogyny in The Prague Cemetery makes sense because the protagonist is very open and honest with the reader and himself about the fact that he hates women. In fact, in the opening chapter he explains how he hates just about everyone: women, Germans, Russians, Jews, the French, southern Italians, Masons, Jesuits, all of them. I suspect he even hates himself. He recently committed an act so thoroughly against his own character that he starts the book with a psychic break between personalities accompanied by amnesia, and it’s told as two distinct personalities trying to piece together a personal history by writing a diary. There’s a third-person narrator/audience surrogate who occasionally arbitrates, and sometimes summarizes years of life in which nothing happens to advance the plot.

Simonini was raised by his father and grandfather, and therein lies the trouble. The grandfather spent a lot of his time with the Jesuits, discussing the big Jewish conspiracy to bring down everything. The father spent a lot of time with the republican army, discussing the big Jesuit conspiracy to bring down everything. Instead of choosing one or the other, Simonini absorbs both their prejudices and grows up hating everyone. He admires some people who are skilled in useful trades, but throughout his life he never meets anyone he loves, either romantically or fraternally. Perhaps this is why it’s taken me so long to read the book; I don’t like being around someone like him.

I have heard it said that over a billion people inhabit this earth. I don’t know how anyone could count them, but from one look around Palermo it’s quite clear that there are too many of us and that we’re already stepping on each other’s toes. And most people smell. There isn’t sufficient food. Just imagine if there were any more of us. We therefore have to cull the population. True, there are plagues and suicides, capital punishment, those who challenge each other to duels and who get pleasure from riding at breakneck speed through woods and meadows. I’ve even heard of English gentlemen who go swimming in the sea and, of course, drown. But it is not enough. Wars are the most effective and natural way imaginable for stemming the increase in human numbers. Once upon a time, when people went off to war, didn’t they say it was God’s will? But to do so, you need people who want to fight. If no one wants to fight, no one will die. Then wars would be pointless. So it’s vital to have men like Nievo, Abba and Bandi who want to throw themselves in the line of fire. Others like me can then live without being harassed by so many people breathing down our necks.

In other words, although I don’t like them, we do need noble-spirited souls.

Simonini is from Turin, born somewhere around 1830. I feel like a more exact knowledge of Continental nineteenth-century history would have been an advantage in reading this book; my knowledge of the century comes from having studied Victorian literature, so if the United Kingdom had been an important setting I would have felt right at home. But my understanding of the Continent at the time only extends to its effect on British writers, and by the time they passed the Reform Bill the novelists and poets were focused on domestic matters or the distant empire; nothing farther than Newcastle but closer than India gets consistent attention. So when I find myself in the middle of Garibaldi’s attempts to unite Italy, I see his name and think, Italian revolutionary with a red shirt, but I don’t fully understand the issues he was fighting for. Eco kind of gives the impression that Garibaldi himself didn’t understand what was going on. Simonini is a forger and master of disguise who does some spy work for the Piedmont government. However, his hatred of every group in existence gets him in trouble; government alliances shift frequently, and it’s important never to go too far in any direction. When Simonini engineers the explosion of a ship carrying one of Garibaldi’s top officials, Piedmont gets rid of him by shuffling him off to Paris.

In Paris, he does similar work, spying on this or that person, forging documents that lead to huge international incidents. Throughout it all, there’s his little story of the Prague cemetery that he keeps revising and reusing. Originally cribbed from Eugene Sue, he writes the story of the leading rabbis meeting at midnight in the Jewish cemetery in Prague to discuss their plans to take over Europe. It’s very thinly veiled propaganda. As the winds of politics change, he revises the story to match whoever it needs to be used against. He ends up working with a lot of real historical characters, who tend to be bigots, or at least interested in inspiring mass hatreds.

I don’t want to destroy the Jews. I might even say the Jews are my best allies. I’m interested in the morale of the Russian people. It is my wish (and the wish of those I hope to please) that these people do not direct their discontent against the tsar. We therefore need an enemy. There’s no point looking for an enemy among, I don’t know, the Mongols or the Tatars, as despots have done in the past. For the enemy to be recognized and feared, he has to be in your home or on your doorstep. Hence the Jews. Divine providence has given them to us, and so, by God, let us use them, and pray there’s always some Jew to fear and to hate. We need an enemy to give people hope. Someone said that patriotism is the last refuge of cowards; those without moral principles usually wrap a flag around themselves, and the bastards always talk about the purity of the race. National identity is the last bastion of the dispossessed. But the meaning of identity is now based on hatred, on hatred for those who are not the same. Hatred has to be cultivated as a civic passion. The enemy is the friend of the people. You always want someone to hate in order to feel justified in your own misery. Hatred is the true primordial passion. It is love that’s abnormal. That is why Christ was killed: he spoke against nature. You don’t love someone for your whole life – that impossible hope is the source of adultery, matricide, betrayal of friends . . . But you can hate someone for your whole life, provided he’s always there to keep your hatred alive. Hatred warms the heart.

And, of course, Simonini also deals with those who hate the Jews for different reasons:

The English Methodists, the German Pietists, the Swiss and the Dutch all learn to read the will of God from the same book as the Jews – the Bible, a story of incest and massacres and barbarous wars, where the only way to win is through treachery and deception, where kings have men murdered so they can take their wives, where women who call themselves saints enter the beds of enemy generals and cut off their heads. Cromwell had the head of his king cut off while quoting the Bible. Malthus, who denied the children of the poor the right to life, was steeped in the Bible. It’s a race that spends its time recalling its slavery, and is always ready to yield to the cult of the Golden Calf, ignoring every sign of divine wrath. The battle against the Jews ought to be the main purpose of every socialist worthy of the name. I am not talking about communists – their founder is a Jew. The problem is exposing the conspiracy of money. Why does an apple in a Paris restaurant cost a hundred times more than in Normandy? There are unscrupulous races who live on the flesh of others, merchant races like the ancient Phoenicians and Carthaginians. And today it’s the English and the Jews.

And, if you’re starting to get visions of Nazis, you’re pretty close to the truth.

I asked if he thought he was a good example of the superior, Apollonian race. He glowered at me and said that belonging to a race is not just a physical matter but above all a spiritual one. A Jew is still a Jew even if, by accident of nature, he is born with blond hair and blue eyes, in the same way as there are children born with six fingers and women capable of doing multiplication. And an Aryan is an Aryan if he lives the spirit of his people, even if he has black hair.

All this hatred really grinds you down after a while. Eco’s writing is spectacular, as ever, but his choice of subject is so antipathetic to my customary frame of mind that I disliked the book, just as I disliked Foucault’s Pendulum and The Island of the Day Before, only more intensely because it more directly attacks my fundamental belief in the goodness of humanity with fewer interruptions to discuss theoretical matters that don’t relate to human evil. And instead of only using women in a dismissive way (you can glimpse them flirting there at the margins of Eco’s stories), Simonini spends a lot of time using a woman and thoroughly hating her.

Diana Vaughan is not a central or important character. She has dissociative personality disorder; the more dominant personality is a sexually voracious Satanist who tells lots of stories about her brief time with the Masons. The less dominant personality is a sweet, pious girl who is horrified at everything her other self does, says, or believes. Simonini takes her out of a mental institution and hides her in a private apartment, where he and his colleagues use her imaginative stories to blacken the reputation of the Masonic lodges. The colleagues also use her for sex. Simonini is too repulsed by the human body to take advantage of her in this way, until the climactic ritual, a black mass that ends in an orgy. There’s a bit here that reminds me of one of my favorite parts of The Name of the Rose, and I think that Eco really excels at describing the experience of sex:

I know that such abandonment will cause my whole body to waste away, will bring an ashen pallor to my dying face, clouded vision and disturbed dreams, husky voice, pains in my eyeballs, the invasion of pestilent red marks upon my face, the vomiting of calciferous materials, palpitations – and finally, with syphilis, blindness.

And though I can no longer see, I feel the most excruciating and indescribable and unbearable sensation of my life, as if all the blood from throughout my veins were suddenly gushing out from a tear in each of my taut limbs, from my nose, from my ears, from my fingertips, from my anus, help, help, I think I know now what death is, from which every living being recoils, even when he seeks it through an unnatural instinct to multiply his own seed.

I can no longer write, I no longer recall, I am reliving, the experience is unbearable, I wish I could forget it all again . . .

So of course he takes the girl home and kills her. The two acts together cause the psychic break and amnesia mentioned at the beginning; once he remembers what he’s done, he no longer needs the separation of consciousness, so he reintegrates his self and gets back to work destroying the Jews. He makes one last expansion/revision and sells the Prague cemetery story for the last time, with the implication that this will become The Protocols of Zion, that document that stirred up a passionate European hatred of the Jews right through the Holocaust.

When I consider Eco’s career, at least the now four and a half novels of his that I’ve read, I really have to wonder how similar Simonini is to Eco himself. Eco loves to write about conspiracy theories, always portrayed in a spirit of ridicule for the people who believe in them. Christianity seems to be the biggest conspiracy of all. As I reflect on it, Eco has written very few characters whom I actually like, or who have a favorable opinion of humanity. I like the narrator/protagonist of The Name of the Rose and his Sherlock-Holmesian friend Brother William, and I like Casaubon’s girlfriend in Foucault’s Pendulum. That’s about it.

But generally, despite his great skill in writing, Eco writes books that I can’t agree with, but can’t argue with either. He has a vast wealth of historical knowledge and a deep, deep cynicism; all I have is my faith in people. As I think over time, my own personal history and not the history of global events, I think Eco is wrong about people. Perhaps they are a bit gullible, but they’re not evil, and they’re not stupid. Love is just as natural as hate, though it’s harder to manipulate. Sex is not weird or wrong; loving copulation is as natural as breathing, with similarly healthful effects. People are good, and the world is a beautiful place: two facts that Eco’s characters shut their eyes to, and they then call their blindness truth. I don’t generally think of myself as a person of faith, my faith in religion or God being almost nonexistent, but I believe in people. I love them – I love you. And because you are a human being, I believe you are good, you are strong, and you are beautiful. This faith remains unshaken.