Monday, May 5, 2014

Tea and Vitriol

On Sunday it rained, so we stayed in and had tea. We do tea right at our house:


photo credit: Mighty Reader

There were dessert items as well as sandwiches.


photo credit: Mighty Reader

On Sunday I also began my re-read of Fyodor Dostoyevsky's 1864 long magazine article Notes From Underground. I've just read Nikolai Chernyshevsky's 1863 long novel What is to be Done?, to which Notes is a partial response (and parody). That experience makes Dostoyevsky's piece seem quite a different thing than it was the first two times I read it. More about that, possibly, tomorrow. But I will say two things about Notes:
  • It's typical disorganized Dostoyevsky, and
  • It seems to be pretty hard on old Chernyshevsky, digging quite hard. I would like to remind Fyodor that Chernyshevsky, after all, was not hoping for the creation of the Gulag or Stalin; he was hoping for a happy and benign utopia. An impossible, fundamentally inhuman utopia (in this I agree with Dostoyevsky), but still a place where people would be free and happy. Parody is risky business.
Biggest laugh line so far:
Once you have mathematical certainty there is nothing left to do or to understand. There will be nothing left but to bottle up your five senses and plunge into contemplation. While if you stick to consciousness, even though the same result is attained, you can at least flog yourself at times, and that will, at any rate, liven you up. Reactionary as it is, corporal punishment is better than nothing.
Also! I am pleased to remember to mention that there is a Chekhov tie-in with Notes From Underground that I will hopefully remember to write about later this week. I've been wanting to read some Chekhov again in any case.

24 comments:

  1. Are you kidding me? You two should have charged yourselves, like, a hundred bucks to attend tea at your place. You'd be making so much money if you did that. I'm particularly impressed that your berry garnish has its own little pink flower garnish.

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    1. Davin, you and Red are invited to our tea room any time you like. The little flowers on the raspberries are from our lilac tree. The raspberries, sadly, are from the grocer.

      For a while in Seattle there were a couple of unlicensed tea houses that did pretty good business. Mighty Reader remains tempted by that vocation.

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    2. We're into a lovely tea here too. One of life's pleasures. But I think Austen or Wodehouse would go better with the tea.

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    3. Tea is a sure mark of civilization. My vote goes to Wodehouse, though I'd also be fine with any number of English writers.

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  2. Very lovely, Scott! I remember the tea at your house, and it was an experience! I love everything about your house, by the way. If I were a criminal, I'd steal it out from under you. And I'd keep that china too. ;)

    This makes me want to re-read our anthology of Notes!

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    1. Michelle, you cannot have our house. But you can come visit again, and we'll have tea.

      Every once in a while I think the three of us should do another anthology. But then I snap out of it.

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  3. Should I interrupt the tea? I think you're wrong on both bullet points, but that can wait.

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    1. You think it's atypical disorganized Dostoyevsky? My second bullet point contains too many claims for me to guess what you disagree with there. Yes, interrupt, do.

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    2. This is an organized book, even in the simulated rant. The parody gives D. some structure. The single character helps, too. Maybe this is clearer in Part II.

      Dostoevsky does not think people will be either happy or free in that utopia.

      It may be unfair to attach the Gulag to Ch., but he, like Dostoevsky, was aware of the last revolution that came out of the radical Enlightenment. I hope that Perspicacious Reader, with whom I deeply sympathize, was able to get across the border before the row of asterisks hit. He's gonna get it in the neck. But then so will Chernyshevsky.

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    3. The book is organized into four distinct sections, yes. What I mean is that, at the paragraph level, Dostoyevsky's prose is always disorganized. It points in all directions and works more cumulatively than linearly. Typical disorganized Dostoyevsky. Sloppy prose. Things settle down in Part II, and happily the narrative broadens. The three main episodes that make up Part II are fine dramas. Part I is lousy fiction, is what I think. I am aware, yes, that Notes was not intended to be read primarily as fiction; the strength of Part II is that it stands on its own without reference to Chernyshevsky; the daily life of the Underground Man is timeless and beyond politics.

      I agree that nobody would be happy in Ch's utopia; I don't know enough about his political essays and the content of that journal he edited to know if he called for a bloody revolution. Though, I guess, most revolutions begin and end with someone being put against a wall, don't they?

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    4. Ah, there's the difference. I think the first part in fact was intended to be read as fiction, even though it took many decades for anyone to actually do it, and that it is effective as fiction. Maybe I could expand on this, although that might be beyond me.

      To a Leninist, Stalin and the Gulag are hidden under the asterisks. I don't know what Ch. thought. Probably that it would all just work out somehow. Pangloss as revolutionary.

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    5. Well, Rakhmetov is willing to be a machine in service of progress, to do whatever is necessary. His room, you recall, runs with blood. I'm sure he'd have no qualms if that blood was someone else's. I phrase that poorly but I hope you see what I mean.

      Part of the problem is that I've begun to imagine a "Chernyshevsky," a naive idealist and a harmless sap, a guy with extraordinarily bad luck; probably why Dostoyevsky railed so hard against the real Chernyshevsky is because he (NCh) couldn't see the ramifications of his philosophy.

      I don't know. It somehow comes down to me not enjoying Notes this time. Tomorrow I'm going to post about how I'm not enjoying it, or at least how I'm unable to find something to say about it despite my many false starts. Maybe.

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    6. I want to argue with the idea of Dostoevsky being disorganised. He's organised to be Dostoevsky in the way that Christina Stead is organised to be Christina Stead or Balzac is organised to be Balzac. I'm not sure how else anybody would want him to organise himself. They're all volatile; they bulge.

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    7. While "disorganized" is certainly how I think of Dostoyevsky's prose style, I don't mean it as a judgment against him. His writing is like a bush grown wild, where other writers would prune back, espalier, etc. Dostoyevsky writes in several directions at once and reveals his meaning over time instead of immediately, and the narratives threaten to explode in unpredictable trajectories. Wait; did I say "threaten to?" They do explode in unpredictable trajectories. None of that is a weakness. Maybe "sloppy" is too harsh a word, but I'm stickin' with "disorganized."

      I'll be reading Demons soon, so we'll see then if I still believe what I'm saying now. Before that, I'm reading Whymouth Sands, but first it's a volume of Chekhov stories. I'm getting dizzy.

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    8. Demons is amazing. I look forward to seeing what you think of it.
      As to the French Revolution, by the late 1800's it was possible to look at the long-term effects and see that while it was horribly bloody in the short run, in the long run it did a lot of good. Then again, I suppose whether or not you think the French Revolution was a good thing is still one of the dividing lines in politics today.

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    9. I guess I come down on the side of people who wonder if the means justify the ends; I wonder if the Republic is truly best implemented by first beheading the aristocracy. If the first act of a new government is to kill all of its ideological enemies, how free is that state really going to be? I am always suspicious of purges in the name of progress, I guess. Did ideas of egalitarianism spread because of the revolution, or despite it? Correlation is not causation, etc.

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    10. To be pedantic, the Terror really wasn't about beheading the aristocracy; it was mainly about going after the government's enemies, whatever class they happened to be. And it was hardly the first act of the new government. But I take your point, and I don't justify what happened. The fundamental mistake, I think, was before they even implemented the Republic, when they decided to go to war with Austria.
      I guess my point is that it's a common enough belief, and one which I share, that the French Revolution was a very good thing indeed, that it's not clear at all that it should have been a warning to Chernyshevsky.

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    11. No, no, I get that, I do. My view of the French Revolution is based almost entirely on "A Tale of Two Cities" and "Horatio Hornblower." A scholar I am not.

      I do think that maybe Chernyshevsky thought people could be convinced through the force of his logic to radically change society. If he talked long enough and well enough and had the right friends, it would all happen as if by magic. Maybe. I might actually be that sort of revolutionary myself, to tell the truth.

      I also think that for many people, revolution in the abstract is a good idea and it always comes as a surprise when the houses are on fire in real life. Though I have also met "revolutionaries" who merely wanted to burn everything down to see the flames, and to avoid having to get real jobs after college. There are many ways to be a revolutionary, I guess. I'm back to where I started, I see.

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  4. I agree - Ch. did not understand the imaginative potential of his own creation. This is part of what makes him a tragic figure.

    And people ask if his book is worth reading!

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    1. I admit that I thought more folks would join the read-along. It's really been a swell time. Someone should do (or maybe already has done) a study of what fantasy novels revolutionaries have read.

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  5. Part of the problem is that I've begun to imagine a "Chernyshevsky," a naive idealist and a harmless sap, a guy with extraordinarily bad luck; probably why Dostoyevsky railed so hard against the real Chernyshevsky is because he (NCh) couldn't see the ramifications of his philosophy.

    In some places I think Dostoyevsky sees Chernyshevsky exactly the way you do here. To paraphrase Joseph Frank, when there was a “schism among the nihilists,” Dostoyevsky saw the brilliant and hard-edged Pisarev as the one whose ideas were really dangerous, and Chernyshevsky's camp as well-meaning and naive. Pisarev's ideas lead to Raskolnikov committing murder, and Chernyshevsky's to the buffoonish, but ultimately decent, Lebezyatnikov (also in C&P).

    And @Tom: It may be unfair to attach the Gulag to Ch., but he, like Dostoevsky, was aware of the last revolution that came out of the radical Enlightenment.

    Tying him to the French Reign of Terror is a step fairer than tying him to the Gulag, but Ch. could look at 1776 and 1848 as well as 1789. He could and did write about the American Civil War and the Roman Republic.

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    1. Yeah, in FD's parody response to Schedrin's parody, Dostoyevsky treats Ch as a crank, a goof. He implies that Schedrin will abandon the revolutionary position once he starts reading poems and literature rather than parroting party line. I'm guessing that in the opening salvo of Notes, Dostoyevsky is firing at more targets than Chernyshevsky.

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    1. You and yours are also invited! We don't have a high chair, so you'll have to bring yours.

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