Saturday, December 24, 2011

Dostoevsky: Self Interest

The following spiel is delivered by Pyotr Petrovich, a man accused of spouting the progressive line by rote. It seems I’ve heard something similar to this much more recently and from different corners. See what you make of it.

“If up to now, for example, I have been told to ‘love my neighbor,’ and I did love him, what came of it? […] What came of it was that I tore my caftan in two, shared it with my neighbor, and we were both left half naked, in accordance with the Russian proverb which says: If you chase several hares at once, you won’t overtake any one of them. But science says: Love yourself before all, because everything in the world is based on self-interest. If you love only yourself, you will set your affairs up properly, and your caftan will also remain in one piece. And economic truth adds that the more properly arranged personal affairs and, so to speak, whole caftans there are in society, the firmer its foundations are and the better arranged its common cause. It follows that by acquiring solely and exclusively for myself, I am thereby precisely acquiring for everyone, as it were, and working so that my neighbor will have something more than a torn caftan, not from private, isolated generosities now, but as a result of universal prosperity. A simple thought, which unfortunately has been too long in coming, overshadowed by rapturousness and dreaminess, though it sems it would not take much wit to realize…”

Crime and Punishment. Part II, Chapter V. Trans. Pevear/Volokhonsky

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Habitual Reading

Monday through Saturday I wake up at 5:15 A.M. to read before getting ready for work. I settled on this time despite not being a morning person, because it was the only time I could find to be absolutely to myself and not risk falling asleep, or preferring to play games, or watch a movie with my wife instead of reading. At 5:15 A.M. I am entirely on my own. My youngest will wake up at about 6:30 A.M., come downstairs and give me a hug, and ask for breakfast. A cereal bar, a bowl of cereal, a glass of water—she’s set and quiet for the next 20–30 minutes. By then I am either finishing my reading, or already on to writing up my notes. At 7:45 A.M., I leave my books and notebooks for the shower, and the rest of the day is work and family until the kids go to bed at night. This is my day.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Notes from Underground: Vanity

Joseph Frank, in his exposition of Notes from Underground, has laid bare that in the u.m. with which I so identify. In the end, it is simple. Painfully so, as in Foucault’s Pendulum.1

Vanity. I am incredibly vain. I am constantly self-conscious and concerned over how I am perceived by others, and concerned that I be seen as more discerning, more elevated, more spiritual than they—whoever is “they,” whoever is there to see me, to praise me, admire me.

The underground man’s vanity convinces him of his own superiority and he despises everyone; but since he desires such speriority to be recognized by others, he hates the world for its indifference and falls into self-loathing at his own humiliating dependence.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Notes from Underground: Criticism

Having finished the initial reading of Notes, I’ve been reading the criticism selections provided in the Norton critical edition of the book.

The early criticism, that by Mikhailovsky, is the least interesting—he makes of Notes a sort of meditation on cruelty, and I think perceives D as given to an unhealthy interest in cruelty, with “tendencies to torture.”

Rozanov seems a better reader of Dostoevsky, perceives his recognition of the “extreme in the ideal.” The last two paragraphs of this excerpt are the most interesting to me:

By nature, man is a completely irrational creature; therefore, reason can neither completely explain him nor completely satisfy him. No matter how persistent is the work of thought, it will never cover all of reality; it will answer the demands of the imaginary man, but not those of the real one. Hidden in man is the instinct for creation, and this was precisely what gave him life, what rewarded him with suffering and joy—things that reason can neither understand nor change.

The rational is one thing; the mystical is another thing again. And while it is inaccessible to the touch and power of science, it can be arrived at through religion. Hence the development of the mystical in Dostoevsky and the concentration of his interest on all that is religious, something we observe in the second and chief period of his work, which began with Crime and Punishment.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Notes from Underground: Conclusion

I have just finished the last five chapters of Part II.

The Underground Man is a complete, reprehensible motherfucker.

Dostoevsky leads us on as to give us the romantic notion of the saved prostitute, saving the fallen man. He turns it on its head. He gives us a motherfucker, spiteful not from feeling as much as a broken intellect. The feeling rules all, but it is indirect, falsified by intellectualization, by notion. It is feeling falsified by an unworthy ideal.

At each point in the end of the story, the u.m. could have made a different choice and all would have ended differently, ended well. This he does not do, because this we do not do. We do not resolve on mercy, on charity, on love, on nobility. We resolve on crudeness, on vulgarity, on scorn, on spite—to protect ourselves, as not to lower ourselves, not to be vulnerable to another because we cannot live in the filth of reality, but are happy to love the vileness of our suffocated isolation.

How truthful is any of this?

I will have to come back to this after thinking on it. Dostoevsky reveals the lie in the pathetic, romantic image—then gives us its redemption in the end of Crime and Punishment—is that it? Raskolnikov is humbled and thus salvageable in a way that never happens with the u.m. Yes?

I kept expecting Liza to hang herself. Why would this have been more pleasing? Would this in some way have redeemed the u.m., turned him to repentance? Or is it just a pleasing literary turn having nothing to do with life? Pleasing in its finality, in its pathetic tidiness, while the u.m. just continues his dinginess?

Monday, December 5, 2011

Notes from Underground: II.ii


The u.m. would move from his “debauch” in the outer world into dreams of the “beautiful and lofty.” He would imagine that some single outward circumstance would put everything to rights and he “would suddenly step forth under God’s heaven all but on a white horse and wreathed in laurels.”

This sense of the beautiful and lofty coming at even his worst moments he describes as a “sauce,” adding the “piquancy” of “tormenting inner analysis.”

He experienced love in his dreams—love that “was never in reality applied to anything human,” and he “never felt any need to apply it.” From here he moves on to Napoleonic dreams of grandeur.

He would “reach such happiness that [he] needed, instantly and infallibly, to embrace people and the whole of mankind.” At these times he would go to see his department chief—“one really existing person” on which to foist his love for mankind.

And his dept. chief being unavailable he would seek out Simonov—a quiet and equable schoolmate, to whome he felt he was likely a burden. Having no surety, he went anyway.

I feel so revealed, laid bare by the u.m. But how does one move past him? How does one be above ground without being a philistine idiot? An idiot—The Idiot. A purely human “good man” who was abused, who started and ended in sickness and isolation. This, too, is no solution, even if he is the antitype of the underground man.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Notes from Underground: II.i


The first part being a sort of manifesto, the second part is a memoir. The u.m. tells how he alone was unique, developed, intelligent, and all those around him were dull-witted sheep.

The u.m. isolates himself, covering his own meanness with “morbid development.” How like him am I? He despised his equals and “felt convulsive pains in my heart and a hotness in my spine at the mere thought of the measliness of my attire and the measliness and triteness of my darting little figure” among “generals, cavalry officers and hussars, now to ladies.”

The main event of this chapter is the planning of revenge on a 6-foot tall officer who moved him without taking notice of him. U.M. stalks the officer, learns about him, and plots his revenge—this revenge takes the form of simply not giving way before him—of bumping into him. He obsesses, he upgrades his garments in the event that there is a public spectacle, he borrows money for the clothing, and he fails repeatedly to stand his ground.

Finally it is accomplished, he bumps into him and the officer ignores it, but the u.m. is elated. He stood his ground, and is sure that the officer only pretends not to have noticed.

There is another detail about a fine, lofty, and above all literary letter the u.m. wrote to the officer, “composed in such a way that if the officer had even the slightest notion of ‘the beautiful and lofty,’ he could not fail to come running to me to throw himself on my neck and offer me his friendship.”

Every time I read this book I cannot help but to see in the u.m a caricature of myself. Dostoevsky knew me too well—how? Is this so common? And am I so petty?

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Notes from Underground: I.viii–xi

Yesterday I read from I.viii–xi, finishing Part I.

The u.m. makes critical to man his “desires,” “will,” and “wantings.” Without these, he is just a “sprig in an organ barrel.”

You see: reason, gentlemen, is a fine thing, that is unquestionable, but reason is only reason and satisfies only man’s reasoning capacity, while wanting is a manifestation of the whole of life—that is, the whole of human life, including reason and various little itches.

Man wants what is not best for himself if only to rebel against the obligations of lifeless reason—the calendar of human behavior.

I think this is where the u.m. cannot be identified with D. Given what D. has said about individuality, I believe this individualism and the rebellion described—the significance of “wanting” to personality—is the mark of reason’s progeny. D. is pointing to something else. We see this pointed to most explicitly in I.xi, para 1.

The u.m. goes on to say that a man “will deliberately go mad for the occasion, so as to do without reason and still have his own way!”

Monday, November 28, 2011

Notes from Underground: I.iv-vii


The toothache and moaning wickedly, not as is necessary, but so as to make others miserable. Self-conscious of the effect, the irritation of others.

Now, it is in all these consciousnesses and disgraces that the sensuality consists.


How can a man of consciousness have the slightest respect for himself?1


Working up offense or love, playing at it results in the real thing, even as one is conscious that one is playing at it.

Men of action identify secondary causes as primary and feel at ease in acting. The man of conscience probes deeper, which results in constant doubt.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Notes from Underground: I.iii


The active and ingenuous man sincerely folds before a wall. The wall: laws of nature, conclusions of natural science, mathematics.

For the over-sensitive, overly cultivated man, the folding is a deflection.

  • Normal man, born of nature
  • Retort man, born of alchemy; i.e. reason

The retort man folds before the normal man as a mouse before a man.

Dostoevsky goes on to describe the mouse man, retort man in the depth of his insincerity. He wears contempt on his face, but it is merely masking shame. The normal man wants revenge as a form of justice—the mouse meditates on offenses done to him and fantasizes about revenge which he’ll almost never seek.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Notes from Underground: I.i-ii

The other night I feverishly read aloud the first quarter of Notes from Underground. Tonight, or rather this morning, I re-read the first two sections of Part I.


I am a sick man… I am a wicked man. An unattractive man.

The underground man repeatedly makes statements, claims, of his acting contrary to his own advantage—not out of altruism, but out of “wickedness.” He is educated, but persists with superstition. He refuses to see a doctor, although he is superstitious enough—his claim—to “respect medicine.”

He is too conscious. He is neurotically self-conscious. Conscious that his acts of wickedness are affectations. Conscious of “swarming” elements within him that were contrary to his wickedness.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Notes from Underground: Prefatory Reading

I have been reading the background and sources from the Norton Critical Edition of Notes.

D’s letters are curious. The death of his wife, the constant stalling of his obligation to his brother to deliver his story and criticism, his repetition. Interesting for being so prosaic and banal.

In the segment on “Socialism and Christianity” he writes of Socialism and the individuals giving up of himself for the betterment of everyone. D. argues that this is impossible for the Socialist because to the Socialist it is immoral. On the other hand, the ideal Christian does just that, and refuses “recompense” unless he feels that by accepting he will love the donor even more.

The excerpt from Winter Notes compares the Crystal Palace to the worship of Baal, and the impossibility of brotherhood for Western nature. The reason for this impossibility is the focus on rights, individualism, isolation, self-preservation, personal gain, and self definition of the “I.” He goes on to argue that the highest form of individuality is found in sacrifice of one’s self for the good of everyone.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Reading Log

The last couple weeks I’ve been immersed in work-related stuff and haven’t managed to read much. My wife and I went to see a local production of the single-act play, “The Interview,” by Peter Swet, and we will be going to see Chekhov’s “Three Sisters” this next weekend. Local and inexpensive productions.

Sisters touched a nerve—hope for the future despite the endless fading of future into present. How dangerous and pointless it is to look to some vaguely defined future happiness just waiting “over there.” If we approach life that way, it will never fail to disappoint.

Something else on my mind, something that is expressed very well by Harold Bloom in his Preface to How to Read and Why:

Reading well is one of the great pleasures that solitude can afford you, because it is, at least in my experience, the most healing of pleasures. It returns you to otherness, whether in yourself or in friends, or in those who may become friends. Imaginative literature is otherness, and as such alleviates loneliness. We read not only because we cannot know enough people, but because friendship is so vulnerable, so likely to diminish or disappear, overcome by space, time, imperfect sympathies, and all the sorrows of familial and passional life.

The difficulty of communicating at a personal level is constantly on my mind. If lucky you learn to communicate with your spouse, and with—at most—a couple friends. Beyond that is a fog of half-measures, tentative approaches, and well-intentioned dishonesty. Perhaps it is no wonder that we make alliances over trivialities—they are rarely to be found in what is most important.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Reading Log

Just a listing of what I’ve finished since the last log. In the middle of too many books that I may not finish right now to list them all. And I'm increasingly turning to paper and pen to keep track of things that are not—as this is not—of any public interest.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

The Rebel Angels

Robertson Davies’ The Rebel Angels is an engaging and energetic novel with a vigorous sense of humor. The novel reads quickly and never feels weighed down by ideas or seriousness. This is deceptive.

Davies gives us a novel populated by Medieval and Renaissance scholars. Their intellectual landscape is thus not unnaturally populated by Paracelsus and Rabelais, two constant figures in the dialectic of the novel. Of the two, Rabelais seems the most significant. He is a figure frequently claimed by both sides of the numerous arguments in the novel. He provides a lens through which we see into the characters a bit more deeply than they might hope. Parlabane and McVarish make him a model of vulgarity and misogyny, or perhaps more accurately, misanthropy. To Hollier, he represents an object for his own academic ambition. For Maria and Darcourt—and Davies—he is a model of the best sort of scholar, as we hear from Maria:

Rabelais was gloriously learned because learning amused him, and so far as I am concerned that is learning’s best justification. Not the only one, but the best.

It may be wrong to include Darcourt here—as a priest scholar, his greater reference is St. Augustine:

Conloqui et conridere et vicissim benevole obsequi, simul leger libros dulciloquos, simul nugari et simul honestari.

In Maria’s translation:

Conversations and jokes together, mutual rendering of good services, the reading together of sweetly phrased books, the sharing of nonsense and mutual attentions.

This erudite amusement is a hallmark of everything I have yet read by Davies, and it is tempting to think that the best part of what Davies gives us in this novel is Davies, himself. Davies is more wise than a mere intellectual, and more alive than a modernist. He brings with him the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, and with these life fuller than which we are accustomed today.

What we get from Davies is not a hair shirted historicism, but a sense of wholeness for a consciousness which is fermented in the broadness of human experience. Maria says of Hollier that he studies the Middle Ages because they are truly middle—a vantage from which he can look backward to antiquity, and forward to our post-Renaissance present. This dynamic of looking backward and forward, contrasting each with the other, is at the very heart of The Rebel Angels, a book which makes attractive Paracelsus’ “second paradise.”

The striving for wisdom is the second paradise of the world.

Sunday, July 3, 2011

Reading Log: Inflatable (to the tune of “Unforgettable”)

“Gogol’s Wife”

Tommaso Landolfi’s story is written as a chapter of a biography on the famous Russian writer, Nikolai Gogol. In this chapter, the author explores the delicate matter of Gogol’s “wife.” It turns out that she is not a woman, but a balloon. A titilling conceit for horny teen-age boys of all ages, Landolfi develops the story into a humorous, but ultimately sad and disturbing fictionalization of Gogol’s self-destruction. The humorous satire is vibrant from beginning to end, while the sense of tragedy subtly builds beneath the surface. The ultimate effect is a potent sense of the pointlessness of Golgol’s demise.

“Gogol’s Wife” is reminiscent of Gogol stories such as “The Overcoat” and, far more, “The Nose.” The story is humorously absurd, tragic, and strangely touching. It is both a tribute to Gogol the writer and a scathing satire of Gogol the man.

The Bloom on Gogol’s Wife

Harold Bloom’s essay on Tomasso Landolfi, and specifically “Gogol’s Wife,” in How to Read and Why is little more than a summary of the story, but it is this essay which first made me aware of Landolfi, and for this I am appreciative.

The Mabinogion

Thanks to Le Salon Litteraire du Peuple pour le Peuple, I have picked up a new translation of The Mabinogion in anticipation of reading John Cowper Powys’s, Porius. (Quickly say “John Cowper Powys’s, Porius,” five times.) I won’t be in time to catch the group read of Porius, however, there are links a-plenty to help with my read when I get to it. See these:

Le Salon Litteraire du Peuple pour le Peuple

English Translation: The Literary Salon of the People for the People

American Translation: The Literary Salon of the Purple Prose for the Purple Prose

Le Salon Litteraire du Peuple pour le Peuple is a LibraryThing group made up of a disparate bunch of folks who are both fun-loving and highly literate. If you disdain fun and pleasure yourself with effete condescension you may like to check out a different group—Literary Snobs. For a bunch of self-proclaimed literary snobs, they aren’t all that snobby… just more curmudgeonly than Le Salon.

Thursday, June 30, 2011

Zhivago: Facts Don't Exist

Zhivago to his childhood friend, Gordon:

“…the accumulation of a great quantity of senselessness in a notebook will never arrive at any sense, that facts don’t exist until a man puts something of his own into them, some share of whimsical human genius, something of the fantastic.”

Doctor Zhivago, I.4.xii

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Reading Log

Having been sick, I put Zhivago aside for a week and read three Lovecraft stories. The three stories which I read were definitely better written than earlier stories I had sampled. His prose does still tend in an awkward purple direction, but “Cthulhu” and “Colour” both held my attention and had an enjoyable eeriness to them. “The Shadow Over Innsmouth” seemed silly at times, particularly towards the ending. I could envision animated satire of this piece. Perhaps I have seen too many of Miyazaki’s frog and fish creatures to be creeped out by “the Innsmouth look”—my mind constantly made something comical of them. Still, there were some rewarding moments of tension and eeriness. The ending, though largely predictable, succeeded for the narrator’s final proclamation. Then again, could the writer of the last two paragraphs have written the earlier narrative? The effect succeeds in the moment, but weakens with time. “Colour” sticks with me as being a successful tale.

Tomorrow I return to Zhivago in all it’s joyful sorrow and affirmation of life despite suffering.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Pasternak: Not By The Rod, But By Music

I was flipping through a little notebook of mine. Some years ago, I had used it to keep track of bits of prose or verse that made an impression on me.

One of the most profound reading experiences I have ever had was in my reading of Boris Pasternak’s, Doctor Zhivago.

The first entry in that little notebook was from Zhivago. Yuri’s uncle, Nikolai Nikolaevich has been speaking with Vyvolochnov, who as I gather from the context, was a moralist and pragmatist. I quote the recent Pevear, Volokhonsky translation:

…Nikolai Nikolaevich began to explain what brought him close to certain writers of the symbolist school, and then went on to Tolstoy.

“I’m with you up to a point. But Lev Nikolaevich says that the more a man gives himself to beauty, the more he distances himself from the good.”

“And you think it’s the other way round? Beauty will save the world, mysteries and all that, Rozanov and Dostoevsky?”

“Wait, I’ll tell you what I think myself. I think that if the beast dormant in man could be stopped by the threat of, whatever, the lockup or requital beyond the grave, the highest emblem of mankind would be a lion tamer with his whip, and not the preacher who sacrifices himself. But the point is precisely this, that for centuries man has been raised above the animals and borne aloft not by the rod, but by music: the irresistibility of the unarmed truth, the attraction of its example. It has been considered up to now that the most important thing in the Gospels is the moral pronouncements and rules, but for me the main thing is that Christ speaks in parables from daily life, clarifying the truth with the light of everyday things. At the basis of this lies the thought that communion among mortals is immortal and that life is symbolic because it is meaningful.”

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Reading Log

Journal Entry

It’s been a very busy time for me since I started my new job. For a while I was getting up an hour early every day in order to continue with my reading project, then in the evenings I had begun working on programming and tech related materials. Before long I was absolutely exhausted and unable to continue. And at this point my reading project is on hold as I delve deeper into my technical studies.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Reading Log

Compared to the last reading log entry, this one is embarrassingly short.


  • C.S. Lewis, A Preface To Paradise Lost, Chapters V–XXI
  • John Milton, Paradise Lost, Book V–VI (unfinished)

I’ve finished with Lewis’s Preface but continue to listen to the Yale lectures by Prof. John Rogers. The lectures are interesting for all of their information about Milton’s life, and for its exploration of Milton’s other writings. Less interesting, however, are the key points of the lectures. Professor Rogers is painting a portrait of Milton as a rebellious heretic against orthodox Christianity, and one who is scandalously sensual. The thing is, however, that the line of orthodoxy against which Milton is being contrasted is either very particular to his time and circumstances or else theoretically derived without much of a relationship to the actuality of Christian theological understanding. I have thought time after time that these lectures sound like the professor has determined his thesis and is working like a sculptor in clay to make the details all fit and point the right way. I was just this weekend commenting to my wife that I’m betting he had a book in the offing during the lectures and that the lectures were part of his working out of the details. Revisiting the Open Yale site today I see that, “He is currently working on a book on Milton’s relationship to antitrinitarian heresy, entitled Milton and the Heresy of Individualism.”

Lewis’s biases are that of orthodox Christianity. His reading allows Milton his Christianity, and keeps primarily to what is to be discovered within the poem. This approach is less sensational, but makes far more sense to someone experienced with Christianity from the inside. I’m with Lewis in thinking that it’s better to temporarily try to fit myself to the work’s view of the world than to try to make the work fit my view of the world. I guess I’m guilty of being scandalously old fashioned.


  • Paul Barry, Head First Python, Chapters I–IV (unfinished)

I normally have a difficult time with programming books. They are either too rudimentary and I lose interest because it’s not keeping up with my brain, or they are too advanced and I get bored and then lost in the endless stream of technical information. This book strikes a nice balance. It’s relatively entertaining, and relatively fast paced. It certainly feels like I’m learning useful stuff and making quick progress.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Lewis Regained

Before I started reading Paradise Lost I picked up the Norton Critical Edition and was pleased to find C.S. Lewis among the authors excerpted in the selection of modern criticism. Pleased, and somewhat surprised… after all, he takes Milton’s Christianity seriously, he insists on the ridiculousness rather than the heroism of Milton’s Satan, and he’s of that quaint school of criticism which gives consideration to authorial intention.

Lewis was one of the major figures helping me find my way into adulthood. At some point, though, I kind of drifted away from him. I seem to recall reading Miracles in 1998 or 1999 and then sometime in the last 5 or 6 years I re-read all of the Narnia books and that was it. Reading A Preface to Paradise Lost brings with it a sense of coming full circle. It was Lewis (and Tolkien) that really spurred my interest in Homer, Virgil, and Beowulf, and there’s something deeply comforting and rewarding in reading him again.