Philosophy Feed

Dostoevsky's Demons Revisited

As political frenzy revved up over the last year, I found myself wanting to re-read Dostoevsky's Demons, thinking it would offer some insight and perspective on what's happening. Or rather not so much what is currently happening as what has been happening for the past 150 years or so. I had thought on my first reading that I didn't fully grasp it, and hoped it might be clearer on a second reading. As usual I found that it had been longer than I thought since the previous one. I guessed three years or maybe four; it was actually seven.

But looking back at the post I wrote then, I find that it still stands pretty well as a summary of my opinion. So here's a link to it.

What I said then about a great novel being like a symphony that must be heard more than once was certainly proved. I did enjoy the book more this time around, and felt more sure that I understood it. The feeling I described of seeing the people and events as through some kind of fog or smoke was much less pronounced this time, in fact mostly gone. I did, however, again and again find myself thinking of what I had said then, quoting a friend: that many (most?) of Dostoevsky's characters seem "just barely sane." And the funny parts were funnier, especially the meeting of the would-be revolutionaries, which was more or less recognizable to anyone who's ever been around young people full of big ideas about changing the world. And the long rhapsody delivered at the disastrous fete by a windbag character said to have been modeled on Turgenev is flat hilarious.

I also thought of a remark from W.H. Auden which I encountered many years ago in some magazine and no longer remember the context of: that the Russian and American temperaments are more alike than either is like the English. I think that's true. I can't really imagine anyone in Demons transposed directly into an American, but I can easily imagine ones equally crazy in very similar ways.

I read the translation by Pevear and Volokhonsky, which was the same one I read before. I had thought about reading the old and formerly standard Constance Garnett one, but a bit of comparison suggested that the differences were not as great as, for instance, those between the recent Undset translations and the older ones.

The change of the title from The Possessed is interesting. I assume it's justified as a simple matter of translation, but it raises a question. The novel bears as an epigraph the story from the Gospel of Luke of the Gadarene swine, possessed by demons who cause them to run down a hill into the sea. Clearly the deranged ideas of Dostoesky's characters, and especially their nihilistic and amoral revolutionary fervor, are the analog of the demons in the story, and those who are driven by those ideas are the swine. The translation of the title therefore is significant: is it a reference to the demons or to those possessed by them? See this brief discussion at Wikipedia. Either works, of course. But there's a difference of emphasis, and on that basis alone I'm inclined to think that "demons" is more appropriate. Or, as some other translators have said, "devils."

I had not realized how many (English) translations there are. That Wikipedia page lists seven, two of them since Pevear and Volokhonsky's in 1994. 


Happy New Year

You'll notice that there's no cheery exclamation mark after that title. I bring you this appropriate counsel from St. Ephrem the Syrian (d. 373):

God has determined the measure of man’s life, and the days divide this appointed measure into parts. Each day imperceptibly takes its part away from your life and each hour unrestrainedly runs along its course with its little share. The days destroy your life, the hours subvert its edifice, and you rush to your end, for you are but a vapor.

The days and hours, like thieves and robbers, rob and steal from you. The thread of your life is gradually torn and shortened. The days deliver your life up to burial, the hours lay it in the grave, and together with the days and the hours does your life on earth disappear.

I hope to make good use of some large part of the days and hours that will make up the coming year. That's as far as I'll go toward a New Year's resolution. And I wish you success in the same endeavor.

This and a good deal more from St. Ephrem was quoted in a weekly email from the editor(s) of Touchstone. You can sign up for it here

 


"Of all deceivers...

"...fear most yourself."

      --Kierkegaard

One slightly annoying aspect of the current state of this blog is that at least half, maybe more, of the visits to it are from people who have searched for some relatively obscure thing and gotten a link to one of my posts. Whether or not whatever they found here is useful to them or not, they don't stick around, and they don't come back, at least not soon or regularly. Well, that's fine--happy to be of help, if I was. But it means that when I look at my statistics and want to know how many people read the blog intentionally, I have to figure the number of visits by those people, as opposed to those who have been pointed to some specific post on some specific topic and are otherwise not interested, is at best half of the already small number.

One of the more frequent hits is the 2012 post called "Getting Started with Kierkegaard." A fair number of people want to do that, I guess. The post consists of little more than the question: where to start? And there are some good recommendations in the comments.

Which did I pursue? None. The last two comments there reveal the sad picture: about this time last year someone asked if I had an answer to the question. Sadly, I did not, because after eight years I had not so much as picked up one of Kierkegaard's books: it was another of my intellectual projects that failed before it really got started. 

But I have resumed it, thanks to the Eighth Day Books catalog that I received some months ago. They offered a book called Provocations: Spiritual Writings of Søren Kierkegaard, which is a compendium of brief excerpts intended to provide an introduction to Kierkegaard's thought. I thought that might be a good way to take up my abandoned but not forgotten plan. 

Having bought the book (from Eighth Day), I was a little disappointed to find that the editor has in some cases resorted to paraphrase and abridgement in the interests of making Kierkegaard's meaning clear to the more casual reader. Perhaps I'll want to go on from here to specific works. But on the other hand this may be all the Kierkegaard I need.

At any rate I'm finding it very rich in insight, and besides that enjoying it very much. Isn't that epigram fantastic? 

Kierkegaard-Provocations

Here's a link to the publisher's description. And by the way it doesn't seem to be available from Eighth Day anymore. 


Re-reading The Moviegoer

I first read The Moviegoer sometime in the mid-1970s, and I loved it. But I was almost completely oblivious to the religious and philosophical aspects of it. I just thought it was a somewhat satirical, yet affectionate, and altogether delightful slice of a certain kind of Southern life. But that was all. After reading his other work, I could see, in retrospect, what I had missed. But as far as I can remember I didn't actually re-read it until now.

I did, clearly, browse through it a bit when I wrote about Percy in the 52 Authors series--browsed it enough to harvest the quotation I included there. That was five years ago, and I haven't changed my general view of Percy since then. On this reading, several things especially struck me:

1) It's even better than I remembered. I've long said, mainly on the strength of that first reading forty-five or so years ago, that on purely literary grounds this might well be considered his best. I say that now. All the others have their considerable merits and pleasures, but this one is the most perfectly formed.

2) All of the philosophical Percy is present here. If he'd never written anything else, this would stand as a statement (insofar as a novel can or should be a statement) of those views. Other works clarify and expand upon the basic ideas, and work them out in different situations with different characters (well, somewhat different). But the essentials are here, and I don't think they changed much over his career. And that implies a certain amount of repetition.

Percy's religious thought, the Catholic Percy, is hardly evident at all, though--only gently suggested. Binx has just realized that "a search is possible," and hardly begun it, though something has been found, or rather has found him. This was a good aesthetic choice, apart from the things Percy has written about theological questions--and answers--being best approached obliquely. For Binx and/or Kate to be converted would have required at least half again as long a book, and as this book stands it is slim and perfectly shaped.

3) I don't really have any clear idea of what's wrong with Kate. It isn't the same thing that's wrong with Binx, though there seems to be some sort of connection. Perhaps it's just that they are both rather severely "maladjusted," as psychologists used to say. I don't know whether they still say that or not, but it doesn't seem to fit with post-'60s attitudes.

4) I realized that I'm also unclear about the exact nature of the "certification" problem mentioned in that quote from Percy which caused me to re-read the book (see this post from a few weeks ago). This business of ordinary reality becoming unreal, and made real by sudden danger or catastrophe, or by being mentioned or represented in a movie, is something he brings up often, and I'm not sure exactly what its philosophical import is. In the first case--the ordinary made real at a moment of danger--is it really anything more than the fact, remarked on for ages and not particularly "modern," that we naturally grow accustomed to things and cease to pay much attention to them? And that we can be jolted into paying attention again by some out of the ordinary event? This is what Percy calls "everydayness" and is really not a strange phenomenon, or at least not one that has anything in particular to do with modern psychological dislocations.

The matter of extra-real existence being given to a person or place appearing in (for instance) a movie is a different story. If you recognize your home, or your hometown, in a movie, or your cousin as an extra in a crowd scene, you do see them as somehow made more real and significant--"certified," to use Percy's term. This is widely true, maybe universally true, and I think most of us have experienced it. I certainly recognize it. And am really quite puzzled by it. I recognize Percy's description, but I can't recall that he really explains it.

I've been thinking about it, and maybe one aspect of it--not the whole thing, but an aspect--is related to Rene Girard's ideas about mimetic desire: that we desire things because we see that others desire them. Similarly, the significance we assign to something is affected by the significance which others assign to it. It isn't desire, specifically, but it's related; it's certainly a type of valuation.

The prevalence of mass media like movies and television makes us tend to see what is represented there as having more significance than our own personal selves and surroundings, which means in a sense more ontological status: the significant is in some way more real to us than the insignificant. I and my surroundings are only significant to me; what I see on that screen is significant to many others. To that is added the vividness, selectivity, and drama with which movies and television invest everything. Few people have in real life the experience of magnificent bravery and skill shown by John Wayne's character in a scene from Stagecoach mentioned by Binx. Or the sheer power, also magnificent though evil, on display when Walter White says "I am the one who knocks." The common phrase "larger than life" says quite plainly what we feel.

Whether it's a great film or a bad film or a glimpse of the spectators at a football game or just a local news broadcast, that "larger than life" factor enters. And so if you see your town or your house or your cousin in one of these, they absorb some of the extra significance possessed by the thing as a whole. We know that others, thousands or millions of them, invest it with significance, if only by virtue of the fact that they see it. If so many think it's more significant than whatever is outside their own front doors, then it must be--you could in a certain way say it is in fact more significant--and therefore seems so to us as well. It has been certified.

Maybe that's what Percy says. I know he goes into this in more detail in Lost in the Cosmos, but I haven't read it for a while.

5) When I first read the book, I had never been to New Orleans, or for that matter to any part of Louisiana. And although I'd been to the Alabama and Florida Panhandle coasts enough to have a sense of what "spinning along the Gulf coast" is like, I didn't really know the feel of the place and its culture in the way that I do now, after living there for thirty years. I don't claim to know New Orleans well, but I've now been there often enough that Percy's descriptions of it have a flavor that they did not before. I've been on Freret Street, though I don't remember noticing a movie house there. and know that the campus which Binx and Kate walked through to get there is Loyola. It might even be possible to figure out which steps they sat on when they stopped to talk, though I'm sure the campus has changed a lot since the late '50s. 


The Rise of Skywalker

I probably wouldn't have gone to see it if I didn't have grandchildren who are very interested in it. I'm interested, too, but not all that interested; I would have waited till I could see it on Netflix or Amazon.

I haven't read many reviews, but I have the impression that most reaction, at least from people who care enough to review it or discuss it on the internet, has been on the negative side. And if you read the commentary of a true fan, you'll find all sorts of details and disputes about whether this or that aspect of it was good or bad. There seems to be a lot of discussion about whether this last trilogy is coherent, as the second film in it was directed by a different person from the one who did the first and last. And there's a lot of discussion about whether this trilogy completes or defaces the original.

(If you are not familiar with Star Wars: the main storyline is covered in three trilogies, episodes 1 through 9, which tell a story in chronological order. Discussion of these is sometimes confusing because that is not the order in which they were released, which was in sets of three: 4, 5, 6; 1, 2, 3; 7, 8, 9. Complicating the discussion are a few movies and other "product" which are not directly part of that main story.) 

I don't really care very much about all that. The Star Wars movies are not great art. I don't think they will be regarded as such a hundred years from now. And the critics who complained about all the plot devices that have been recycled from the first trilogy are right. This is at least the third time that the resolution has hinged on a desperate mission (apart from the furnishings, a reprise of World War II air combat dramas) to stop the Most Evilest People Ever from using the Most Ultimatest Weapon Ever to rule the galaxy. (If I had been one of the writers, I would have tried to sneak a muttered "Yeah, that's what you said last time" into one of those conversations.)

So are those who complain about plausibility. That's a bit like complaining about Jack and the Beanstalk because as far as we know there are no magic beans. Still, as the characters in Rise of Skywalker talked of "making the jump to lightspeed," I kept wondering if any of the writers knew what a light-year is and how many of them separate the stars from each other. If I understood the opening, most or all of the action of this movie is supposed to take place in sixteen hours. 

And the space combat sequences are tiresome. And so are the light-saber duels. And after eight movies in which the storm troopers' armor protects them from nothing, and they are able to hit nothing with their blasters, there's no reason to change now. And I really don't care about the race-'n'-gender tallying that popular art today is obliged to acknowledge.

All that said, I enjoyed it, I was even touched by it, and will probably see it again. Part of the reason for that is nostalgia. Here's what I said a few years ago, after seeing Rogue One (which is not one of the nine, but fills in the narrative immediately preceding Episode 4, i.e. the original movie):

Princess Leia appears briefly at the end, and the filmmakers somehow gave her the face of the young Carrie Fisher. I was oddly and surprisingly touched by that, as I had been by her recent death. In trying to figure out why, I concluded that it was partly because the original movie had seemed such a breath of fresh air to me. I remember very well the night my wife and I had gone to see some other movie--I have no idea what it was now--and saw the Star Wars preview. We looked at each other and said "We have to see that." And we did, and it was delightful.

The '70s had been a fairly dark time in some ways, a come-down from the crisis of the '60s and at the same time a sort of consolidation and solidification of some of the more negative things, and movies especially had grown considerably darker: the Dirty Harry movies, for instance, and more artsy works like Taxi Driver. And for me personally it had been a difficult period. Star Wars was a complete departure from all that, with its young and brave heroes and heroine and its simple (or simplistic) war of good and evil. It was also witty and imaginative, which may be hard to remember now that it's become such a part of our culture. It was simple fun, but it also celebrated virtue with no irony at all. 

And part of it is what is suggested by that last sentence: beneath all the often-silly trappings, there are profound truths at the heart of the whole saga: the power of love, renunciation, and sacrifice; the potent but self-destructive lure of hatred; the understanding that one must not do evil in the service of good. Those are the things that touched me in the movie, and if there are logical and narrative holes in the way these are worked out, I was not bothered by them. Maybe that's one advantage of not being a true fan. 

Related: also because of the grandchildren I've watched several episodes of a Star Wars spinoff series, The Mandalorian. So far it's entertaining, but I wouldn't say much more. It was mentioned in the comments here a week or two ago, and I noted that the Mandalorian is essentially the Eastwood character from a spaghetti Western, even to the point of having Eastwood's voice. It seems I'm not the only one to notice this:

 


Written In Sand

This was taken from a room in a motel at Gulf Shores over the Thanksgiving weekend. It struck me as very poignant. Where will Mike, Angie, Logan, and Blake be ten years or more from now? Will they remember each other? Will they remember Thanksgiving 2019? And where will I be? Possibly not in this world.

This message was well above the waterline, but would have been blown away, or mostly blown away, by now, as we've had some windy days since then. WrittenInSand


The Funniest Monty Python Bit (?)

Perhaps a bit surprisingly for someone of my age and, um, general cultural inclinations, I've never been a serious Monty Python fan, the sort who can quote most of their stuff and finds even a mention of their celebrated skits funny. Truth is, I've never seen it all, not by a long shot. Sure, I think some of the classics, like the Dead Parrot, are very funny. (I just watched it again, and it still cracks me up.) But I always found them a very mixed bag, and have never seen Life of Brian, or all of the Flying Circus. Truth is, I think Fawlty Towers is more consistently funny. Very, very funny.

Well, I noticed recently that Flying Circus is on Netflix, so in the interests of furthering my education ("never too late!" people are always saying, which is self-evidently preposterous), I've been watching it now and then, ten or fifteen minutes at a time. As in the past, I find it a very mixed bag, veering from the hilarious to the more or less stupid. But a few nights ago there was a sketch which I think is as funny as anything else I've seen from them. I guess you probably have to have read some D.H. Lawrence to appreciate it--Sons and Lovers in particular, I think, though it's been a very long time since I read it. It's the confrontation of a tough, harsh, father and his son whom the father regards as effete, soft, and pretty much useless, as in Lawrence:  only their occupations are reversed. 

It's not on YouTube, but if you have Netflix you can see it in Series 1 Episode 2, starting around 17 minutes. I just watched it again and it was as funny as it was the first time. 


Atlas Shrugged Revisited

A few days ago on Facebook a friend remarked, apropos Independence Day, that "We're doomed because of Ayn Rand." Then earlier today my friend Stu left a comment on this post from 2014 saying he had given up on reading Atlas Shrugged with 300 pages still to go. He mentioned that he hadn't been able to locate a previous post--posts, actually, two of them--that I'd written about it. They were written eleven years ago and I found, on re-reading them, that they still seem relevant and interesting. So I'm bringing the subject up again.

At the time I knew a little about Rand, of course; I guess everybody does. I knew her horrible reputation in the eyes of many across the philosophical and political spectrum. And I knew that she had a lot of adoring fans, and had founded a slightly cultish philosophical school called Objectivism. But apart from a couple of things which I'd read in my teens and not been much impressed by, and didn't remember very well, I didn't actually have any firsthand knowledge of her work. So I decided to read Atlas Shrugged "because it is apparently a very influential book, and I wanted to understand why and how—why people like it, and what it teaches them." The result was a review and a follow-up. Here they are:

Ayn Rand, Crank

A Few More Notes on Ayn Rand

These two pieces were the occasion of one of the liveliest discussions ever to occur in the comments here. If I remember correctly one thread passed the 200-comment mark, which probably makes it the longest ever. Apparently the first post somehow came to the attention of some zealous Objectivists, and they came looking for an argument, which they got. Unfortunately those discussions are lost, I guess forever. At the time I was on Blogger and used the old Haloscan commenting system. It shut down, and a lot of interesting discussion went with it.

Rand is a sort of extreme libertarian, which conventionally puts her on the political right, though many conservatives consider her a mortal enemy (see Whittaker Chambers's famous review of Atlas Shrugged). But many progressives hold views that are fundamentally compatible with hers: hostility to Christianity, for instance, and above all the doctrines of the sexual revolution, which are 100% compatible. Hers is a hard-nosed and explicit statement of attitudes and inclinations which are present deep in the roots of American culture. And I suppose that's part of the reason why her work remains popular. 

WhoIsJohnGaltA guy who really likes the sound of his own voice, for one thing.