Monday, June 30, 2014

New clothes, no emperor

Harold Bloom proposes an antagonistic relationship between artists and art, an Oedipal struggle* between young artists and older artists, where the young/beginning artist must defeat his predecessors or be defeated. A major component of this struggle is the presumed privileging of originality by successful (Bloom's word is "strong") artists. These propositions and assumptions (found in Bloom's rollicking fantasy novel The Anxiety of Influence) tell us many interesting things about the presumed author of that novel, including the obvious influence upon Bloom of that old reactionary crackpot, Ralph Waldo Emerson. They do not, alas, tell us much at all about the poets of the real world and how they came to write poetry.

I've never managed to make it all the way through The Anxiety of Influence in any of my past attempts, the book being so clearly wrongheaded, but I have sworn to actually finish the damned thing this time through. It is, after all, pretty slender. What's wrongheaded about Dr Bloom's famous bit of fiction is this: he has noticed, being a good reader, that some good poets progress over their lives from stumbling, derivative poets to being poets who find new formal strategies. Other poets never find anything to do in the way of formal innovation. Bloom takes this observation and spins his Oedipal fantasy, creating a drama with young poet as protagonist, and influential older poet as antagonist, the father figure who must be killed in order that the young poet may become his own man. Exciting stuff.

What Bloom fails to see is that there is a much simpler explanation for this progression: the young artist must learn his craft. He is not oppressed by the spectre of the poets of the past, nor does he battle against them. In the preface to the edition I'm reading, Bloom makes a claim about Shakespeare's allusion to Marlowe in "Richard II" (where Richard looks into a mirror and asks if his was the face that once commanded thousands of men, an echo of Marlowe's "the face that launched a thousand ships"): Blooms says,"however we think Richard intends it, Shakespeare flaunts it as an emblem of his new freedom from Marlowe." There is no reason at all to believe this claim. It is more likely that Shakespeare, never shy about plagiarism, just liked the sound of it and stole it for himself. There is no reason to believe any of Bloom's claims about the poets under discussion. There is no reason for Bloom to have imagined this violent struggle between generations of artists.

Well, there are reasons, but they all have to do with Bloom's failure to become an artist on his own. He gives it away when he says that criticism "is either part of literature or it is nothing at all." His claim is that criticism is part of literature. He presents this false dichotomy, daring you to tell him that criticism might be something that is not necessarily part of literature, because Bloom wants to be an artist. In The Anxiety of Influence, we read Harold Bloom's hallucinatory struggle against the Western Canon, and nothing more.

Bloom is not, in this tiny book, talking about the creation of art. He claims to be, but he's not. Entirely missing from Bloom's discussion is the joy of creation, or in fact any kind of understanding of the creative act in action. Bloom has poets, and he has poetry, but he has nowhere really considered the poet's sense of writing a poem, what Jon Gardner calls being within "the fictional dream." Bloom gives us agony. Where is the ecstasy? Perhaps Bloom labors, struggles, claws his resentful way forward and dreams of murdering his literary predecessors. Most people who make art do not engage in this particular struggle, is my claim. There is no reason to believe that Bloom is right about any of this. There is no reason to believe that poets, writers, playwrights, spend much time or effort thinking about the poets/writers/playwrights they admire, and certainly less reason to believe these people are in any way oppressed by the past.

One of Bloom's criteria for "strong" artists is the creation of new and original work, something that moves away from the respected figures of the past. Bloom writes as a critic, an outsider to art, not as a man who creates art. There are some artists who talk ceaselessly of finding their own way, of making something unique, and these (contrary to Bloom's claim) are generally the least of our artists. A good, "strong" artist is concerned with what he is trying to do now, with what he is trying to accomplish in the present work. Artists collect tools and learn how to use them, and find new things to do with those tools as a matter of course, because the ideas one has look different every time you learn a new technique. As craft grows, so naturally does vision evolve. This is not a freeing of oneself from one's psychological fetters; it is experience and competence and acquired depth. Perhaps this is actually what Bloom means, all he means, and he's chosen to build this clumsy and amusing metaphor around it, and the "murder your fathers" stuff is all a bit of a joke. Why else would he lard his prose up with Greek terms, as if we all live in ancient Athens? He hides his commonplace observations about the growth of art behind jargon, and we all should know what that means. Nabokov would've had a good time with Mr Bloom, I think, lampooning and dissecting. Oh, wait: he already did. Nabokov wrote that splendid novel where a critic writes himself into the history of someone else's poem, remember? In Pale Fire, certainly, criticism was literature.

* In the preface to the 1997 edition, which is the edition I'm reading, Bloom states that his theory in no way invokes an Oedipal struggle. The anxiety is not in the poet, it is in the poem. What can this possibly mean? Tomorrow, maybe, or the next day, I'll talk about Bloom's actual theory of influence and the anxiety inherent in that process.

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Lying on the shores of The Sea, The Sea

It's not clear how unreliable the unreliable narrator of Iris Murdoch's novel The Sea, The Sea is. I know he's lying to me, but he also seems to be unaware of some facts about his new home on the seaside. The old house is called "Shruff End," a name he briefly ponders and then dismisses. What Charles Arrowby doesn't seem to know is that shruff is an obsolete word meaning rubbish, or bits of trash that can be used for tinder. He bought the house from an old woman named "Mrs Chorney." chorney is Russian for "black." It's also closely-related to chyort which means "the devil." Arrowby has already let it slip, between the lines of his memoir/diary/whatever, that he's not a nice man (he refers to women as "bitches" and lets us know that he's always had plenty of women around who were happy to act as his chauffeur, which is why he's never learned to drive a car). Shruff End, the old house Arrowby has drained his savings to purchase, is not at all a nice house, which is something that Arrowby is not telling his reader. There is a damp smell and it's hideously furnished with broken-down old furniture, but really the smell isn't so bad and the furniture, you see, it's really after all quite charming and endearing in a funny way. A watch tower, or possibly an old lighthouse tower, is falling into ruin at the edge of the property and Arrowby hasn't the money to have it repaired but he'll save up for that, don't you worry. He describes the house in great detail but the place becomes more confusing and sinister the longer he talks about it, as if it's some location out of Lovecraft, where an eldrich horror lurks beneath the floorboards. We are told a great deal about the freedom Arrowby feels here in his house with its private beach overlooking a lonely bay. There is no electricity or hot water, but of course Arrowby is fine with that. He's roughed it before, you know. He is happy being alone, though he's always lived around or with people. It is difficult and dangerous to get into the water from any of the local beaches, but he'll hire someone to install a handrail to assist him getting down the rock face at his own beach. No problem at all, you see. Everything is fine, if you don't count Arrowby's clear lack of purpose in living from day to day, his complaints that nobody writes to him and there's not telephone service, and of course there was that hallucination (was it a hallucination?) on his second day, of the immense serpent made of sea water, rising up out of the bay and then dissolving away again. Arrowby supposes he has found sanctuary. He insists upon it. No, everything is perfectly lovely, alone in the decaying house at the edge of nowhere, at the edge of the sea, the sea.

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

to impoison and drive to madness

Another thing had struck Sylvanus as curiously heart-piercing in this House of Ghosts, and that was the way Sex itself, the great life-urge of the world, fell away and dwindled and receded. It sank, this thing, from occupying the first place in human life to occupying the ninth or the tenth. Its results were here only too clearly ; but its living manifestations seemed minimized, sterilized, paralyzed. Anyone who has been in Bedlam will bear witness how forlornly correct Sylvanus' observation was. As a matter of fact it is curious how the illusion should ever have got about that mad people are often happy and cheerful, and merry and gay! As a matter of fact upon an insane asylum lies exactly the same kind of sick, inert, bewildered, unearthly sorrowfulness that Homer depicts as the prevailing condition of those faint spirits, who in the realm of Hades "no longer behold the sweet sun". Yes, the sadness, the dispiritedness, the inert hopelessness that is the dominant atmosphere of such a place is almost identical with that twilight kingdom where only the drinking of blood enables a mother to know her own son ! And it would seem that just as with the loss of their bodies "the noble nations of the dead" feel no longer the urge of amorous desire, so in the atmosphere of Hell's Museum considerations of excrement played a larger part than those of the heart. That terrible and startling indifference to personal appearance, to the state of one's dress for instance, that is such a noticeable characteristic of these societies of the damned is a fearful and significant hint as to how the implacable Goddess of Desire, when by her ravages she has reduced her victims to this condition, leaves them in contempt, and glides away, to impoison and drive to madness other, fairer, fresher, younger, less plague-spotted souls!
Last night I finished Weymouth Sands. Very clearly, as I closed the book, I thought Well, that was all right. It's a mad book, full of mad people who believe in a mad, violent, somehow sentient world wherein we are all driven to torture one another--the world itself torturing us, too--all for a drop of solace (which is one of the metaphors in the book, where dogs are tortured and sleep deprived so that their poor bodies will produce a hormone that acts as a sleep aid to humans, o ye gods of irony). John Cowper Powys, the author of this mad world, himself believes in this active, aware universe where emotions and thoughts and even the shadows of emotions and thoughts are like forces of nature, like wavelets that combine and grow into tsunamis, that wash over and through other people and places and things. It's all connected, all violently and sexually connected in a maelstrom of desire and deceit and ignorance. So much ignorance, so much lying to ourselves and others, and as Pykk pointed out, Powys finds this exciting and titillating. It's a mad universe in Powys, not a place I'd want to live but it was interesting to visit, to see how--sometime recently there was a conversation about this on this very blog--the landscape, the setting, becomes an actor, a character in the story, a voice and a doer-of-things. Yes, that was all right. I'll visit Powys-world again, I think.

For now, I'm in Iris Murdoch's mad and deceitful world of The Sea, The Sea. The landscape is described in detail, hard and cynical detail even when the narrator claims to admire what he sees. Charles Arrowby is going to be a pushy sort of narrator, telling his reader what to think. John Cowper Powys is a pushy narrator, elbowing his way into center stage past his characters and sets, telling us what to think, lecturing the reader. You can see how Powys made all of his characters into versions of himself or versions of the archetypes in which he believed. There were no real people in Weymouth Sands, not even--I think--the intrusive author. A good book, though. A violent dream of desire and the unsureness of selfhood.

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Because houses + moles = evil



Yes, I know, making fun of misspelled words is crass and déclassé. And yet.

Also, I report that not only are houses in my neighborhood being rid of moles, the writer in my mole-free house has stumbled upon the large conceptual frameworks for his work-in-progress. I am not claiming that the book will have a central theme, because I don't write those sorts of novels, but I do like to explore some linked ideas across the length of a narrative, and I wasn't aware what those ideas were until very recently. The use of symbolism in Russian literature is one of the ideas, the personal flaws of artists is another idea, etc. Saint Paul versus Christ is another idea. The usual sort of stuff, in other words. Etymologies of names, and some discussion of fishing. Shakespeare, of course.

Thursday, June 19, 2014

a collection of troubled romance

Yesterday during my lunch break I picked up a copy of Jose Saramago's novel The History of the Siege of Lisbon, which looks quite wacky and fun (a proofreader at a distinguished publishing house alters a key word in a history text, and thereby actually changes history, a dream-within-a-dream of the Oceania government, nicht wahr?). I also picked up a very too lovely edition of Chekhov's only novel The Shooting Party, the whodunit he wrote early on in his career. I found a gorgeous cloth-bound edition in a slipcase. I'm quite excited, not just because it's a beautiful object, but also because somehow I've managed to never have read The Shooting Party, which is said to be slight but entertaining. And besides, it's Chekhov. I am reading all the Chekhov. I am also reading Weymouth Sands and have gotten about 62% of the way through the book. It amuses me to discover that at the heart of it, plotwise anyway, is a collection of troubled romance stories. Certainly there's a huge amount of activity tied to those "man+woman+unhappiness" tales, but the bones of the book are rather down-to-earth stories of couples in various types of distress.

Though perhaps that's too much of an over-simplification. I think that what Powys is doing is using these relationships under stress to talk about personality, about how we see ourselves versus how other see us versus how we really are (which is fluid and influenced constantly by our surroundings--including an unseen world of emotion and interconnectedness with the physical world beyond our own body). So the marriage plots (and adultery plots and seduction plots etc) are all just frames into which Powys pours the ideas he's really experimenting with. Which doesn't change the mechanics of the story on the plot level; it does however mean that Weymouth Sands is not, for example, Framley Parsonage. Which is not a dig at Trollope.

In other even less interesting news, am revising one book of my own, drafting another, submitting two others to publishers, and meanwhile asking myself for whom am I writing all of this? I have no idea. No idea at all. Last night I read Browning's goofy little poem "The Pied Piper of Hamelin," which was a bit rough as far as poetry goes, but it was fun and nasty and had a kind of purity of storytelling that I admire. The bits about the rats are the best (especially Rat-land). It is, therefore, impossible to create a single work of narrative fiction that emphasizes all of the elements I want to emphasize, because some of them cancel others out, and each novel I write will be, unless my aims are quite simple, a compromise and a lesser version of my idealized novel. So there's that. I suppose that's how real life is, yes? Perfect forms are merely ideas, abstractions we can't even fully imagine.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Crepuscule With Nellie and two Johns

On November 29, 1957, at Carnegie Hall, a benefit concert was held for the Morningside Community Center in Harlem. Tickets cost $2-4, and on the bill were such names as Billie Holiday, Dizzy Gillespie, Ray Charles, Sonny Rollins, and Chet Baker with Zoot Sims. Also on the bill was Thelonius Monk and his quartet, which featured John Coltrane on saxophone, Ahmed Abdul-Malik on bass and Rossiere "Shadow" Wilson on drums. The tapes of these performances were never released or broadcast at the time, and they were first made available in 2005, I think. I spent this weekend listening to a CD of the Monk/Coltrane performance. What I like about jazz, especially the bebop of the 1950s, is how I can hear that it's a music in transition, a search and a building on top of what's gone before, with players quoting tunes from earlier decades, or throwing in riffs stolen from contemporaries, and trying new ideas that they abandoned or modified later in their careers. It's a nice reminder to me that the creation of art, even the art of highly individual idiosyncratic artists, is still public in a way, part of the endless conversation with all other art. If you know enough about any form of art, you can see how this works, I guess. Mostly this paragraph is a way to mention the Monk/Coltrane recording, which I wanted to do because it's pretty damned great stuff. They were a cooking little quartet. Wilson's drumming is amazing, especially where he puts his kick, rolling the music forward. Or the way Coltrane's "sheets of sound" collapse into snatches of melody and then expand again, arpeggios and scales blurring past. Et cetera. Write your own revue.

The other thing I did this weekend was read more of John Cowper Powys' Weymouth Sands, where the author reveals his familiarity with Rabelais' Gargantua and Pantagruel, and invokes that author's fascination with feces and filth, as well as describing a character as "Panurge-like," down to the tight striped pants. That was fun for me. There is also a lot of Shakespeare running through Weymouth Sands, snatches of "Hamlet" surfacing in the middle of interior dialogues. I'm only about halfway through the novel. I hope I remember to read something by Iris Murdoch after the Powys. I enjoy fiction that turns out to be stuffed with other people's fiction.

Speaking of which, I am making a hopefully final run through revisions to my novel Mona in the Desert. Possibly some people I know well will be reading that MS in July. We'll see. I am also moving slowly forward through the new work, Antosha in Prague. I have some other book-related projects going on as well. Blah blah blah. I am tired and my back aches, because Mighty Reader and I did a lot of physical labor this weekend, including making repairs to our front porch. Sledge hammers, pole jacks and circular saws were involved. Later this week there will be additional scraping and painting. Nevertheless, I have a feeling I'll survive the week.

Thursday, June 12, 2014

a kind of involuntary seduction

This from Murdoch:
That Paul was a violent man had been clear to Dora from the start. Indeed it was one of the things which had attracted her to him. He had a sort of virile authority which her boyish contemporaries could never have. He was not exactly handsome, but had a strong appearance with almost black dry hair and a dark drooping mustache which made Dora think of him as Southern. His nose was too large and his mouth inclined to harshness, but his eyes were very pale and snake-like and had fluttered other hearts at the Slade besides Dora's. She had liked to see in him something taut and a little ruthless, especially when he had been at her feet. She had enjoyed her role of a teasing yet pliant mistress; and Paul had delighted her by the revelation of a sophisticated sexuality and a fierceness of passion which made the lovers of her student days seem insipid. Yet now she began to see his power with a difference. She was at last disturbed by the violent and predatory gestures with which he destroyed the rhythms of her self-surrender. Something gentle and gay had gone out of her life.
or this from Powys:
Settled down close to Mrs Lily in her little car, with Daisy Lily sitting on one of his knees, the Jobber gave himself up to a procession of the queerest thoughts. It gave him a deliciously soothing and sensual pleasure to hold Daisy like this; but out of the lap of this sensuality his mind kept shooting off in more serious and more poignant directions. To High House it flew, straight and fast, like the wind that was blowing in their faces; and the girl who balanced herself on his knee had no idea how his contact with her young body was mingling and fusing itself with his romantic feeling for Mrs Cobbold's companion. But the Jobber was not permitted by destiny to remain long in peace, enjoying this contact with Daisy and these thoughts about Perdita. A casual word from Mrs Lily, as they drove through Rodwell, referring to the number of new villas that had sprung up in that district, though he replied to it in a friendly manner--and indeed there had always been something piquant to his fancy about having a flirtation with the Dog's fiancee--set him upon his murderous thoughts again. The weight of Daisy's body upon him accentuated the pressure of the cold hard stone from Chesil against his thigh...
Certainly the first example, because it isn't in a scene, lacks Powys' sensory details, of the weight of Daisy on the Jobber's knee, the wind, the car. So perhaps something from a scene of Murdoch's:
Toby turned over and reclined on one elbow. In this more inviting position he was accosted by Murphy who came and laid his head against his shoulder. In a kind of physical rapture Toby sat up and took the furry beast in his arms and cuddled him as he had sometimes seen Nick do. The sensation of the hot soft living fur against his skin was strange and exciting. He sat there motionless for a while, holding the dog and looking down into the lake. It was deep there by the landing-stage; and suddenly his eyes made out a large fish basking motionless where the sun penetrated the greenish water. From its narrow length and its fierce jaws he knew it to be a pike. His head nodding a little over Murphy's back he watched the quiet pike. Then his eyes began to close and only the hot sparkling of the lake pierced through the fringe of his eyelids. He felt so happy he could almost die of it, invited by that sleep of youth when physical well-being and joy and absence of care lull the mind into a sweet coma which is the more inviting since its awakening is charmed no less, and the spirit faints briefly, almost sated with delight.
Maybe that's it, the narrator telling the reader what it's like to experience sensations. Powys does this, too, writing out away from the scene and its characters, into the shared life of the mind, or something. Both writers are making claims about universality of a kind.
He replied so coldly that Mrs Lily, anxious to please him tonight at all costs, threw back her heavy coat from her throat, as she held the wheel, and turned quickly to him with a smile into which she threw so much intimacy and sweetness that it quite startled the man. With naive, masculine simplicity the Jobber welcomed not exactly the thought, but the vibration of the thought: might not this desirable Being be cajoled away from Cattistock? Had the painter Correggio been driving by Mrs Lily's side, instead of the Jobber, he would have been forever afterwards trying to catch the Ariel-like equivocation of this ambiguous glance wherein all the wanton nymph in a light woman's nature threw provocative arms round the neck of her lover's foe. Her smile was given him as she turned her vehicle round the corner of Franchise Road into Rodwell Road. Few places could have been more difficult to transform into a Correggio picture than this suburban retreat of quiet tradesmen, where the very pavements were kept so neat and even the fluttering eddies of little hard, dead, metallic-colored privet-leaves were soon caught, scooped up, and carried away; but Mrs Lily was one of those fair women whose skin is so exquisitely white that any gesture, revealing a fragment of throat, or neck, or bosom, acquires a kind of involuntary seduction, independent of place or time.
The Correggio bit is fantastic. A little later, Powys suggests that absent people we are thinking intensely about might be present in a real way, and those thought-about people, even if for example I am thinking of one person and you of another, might well actually be brought together in some psychic space beyond all four of us, invisibly, the power of our minds linking them together in real life. Well, perhaps there is less similarity between Powys and Murdoch than I thought. It's been some time since I read any Murdoch. Her excerpts are from The Bell, and his are from Weymouth Sands. She was writing two decades after him.

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Antosha in Prague, excerpt no. 3

From the work in progress.
A burst of laughter, high and clear as the song of a nightingale, tumbled in through the window. Chekhonte pushed open the sash and leaned out, pen in hand, to find the source. Directly below him on the pavement stood a young woman in a white sunbonnet, holding with each of her hands the hand of a little girl. She laughed again, a strong laugh without a hint of self-consciousness, and then she called out to someone Chekhonte could not see. She spoke English, too rapidly for him to understand a word. The little girls were blond, with curls and pink bows and sailor dresses and Chekhonte assumed they were Americans. The maitre d’hôtel had mentioned that there were several American families staying there for the season. The young woman laughed and Chekhonte felt a deep aching loneliness throb behind his heart and for a full two minutes he was in love with the American woman and he had a powerful urge to lay aside his writing and fling himself down four flights of stairs and into the street where he would declare his passionate devotion to her in broken English.
I'm currently working on the central story to this collection, a novella-length thing called "Antosha in Prague" (surprise). I've somehow convinced myself that the best formal structure for this particular story is a series of letters written by the Antosha character to a variety of people. There will be something like fifty letters, I think. I've never done this particular trick, so the high degree of difficulty is quite pleasing. The story will end with a contrasting section, the diary of a young Czech law student. It will all be really cool or really dumb; that's the only way to fly, kids. The epistolary format is exhausting, by the way. I don't recommend it to anyone. It is, however, an excellent framework for nested stories. Spoilers, sorry.

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

"Would that have been better or worse?" she thought: Weymouth Sands, a beginning

The Sea lost nothing of the swallowing identity of its great outer mass of waters in the emphatic, individual character of each particular wave. Each wave, as it rolled in upon the high-pebbled beach, was an epitome of the whole body of the sea, and carried with it all the vast mysterious quality of the earth's ancient antagonist.
So begins John Cowper Powys' 1934 novel Weymouth Sands. The observation, of how each wave of the sea is like unto the whole sea, is made by Magnus Muir, "tutor in Latin to backward boys" and resident of Weymouth, England. Magnus is walking along the beach while he waits for a passenger ship to unload, as he's agreed to meet a young lady who is to arrive in Weymouth that evening. The young lady, Perdita Wane (yes, all of the characters have these extraordinary names), looks at the waters and perceives them differently:
Again and again as she followed abstractedly with her eyes the melancholy progress of some particular fragment of sea-foam, as it rose and fell on the rocking waves and entered the reflection of a red light or a green light, or got caught by some floating bit of wood or seaweed from which it extricated itself with difficulty, she found herself associating this wisp of whiteness in the dark water with her own fate! She felt pleased when it reached some particularly bright red reflection or green reflection and she could not bear it and had to turn her face away, when it showed signs of being sucked down under some cruel keel.
Muir and Wane both see the ocean as metaphor for humanity, but Muir sees everyone as being the same, where Wane sees each of us as unique. Muir regards humanity as a force against nature ("the earth's ancient antagonist"), while Wane sees the waves--us, that is--as fragile and doomed. And so on.

I'm not that far into the novel yet, but it's chock full of imagery which I like, of course. It's very grainy, tactile, physical, but rather than reminding me of Lawrence--which is what I expected, I guess--I am put in mind of Iris Murdoch.

Monday, June 9, 2014

What is to be done in the Black Sea with all these useless Russians?

In 1891 Saint Anton Chekhov wrote the novella "The Duel," a masterpiece. I don't think he intended that story to directly confront the various arguments made about society in the novels of Ivan Turgenev (Fathers and Sons), Nikolai Chernyshevsky (What is to be Done?) and Fyodor Dostoyevsky (Notes From Underground), but certainly those works were on Chekhov's mind and he clearly referenced some of those arguments in "The Duel." Interestingly, Chekhov did not side with any of his literary predecessors; rather he offered an alternative point of view. To illustrate all these claims, I hopefully now present an argument in quotations, mostly.

1. About the Superfluous Man, Laevsky:
"Answer one question for me, Alexandr Daviditch," Laevsky began, when both he and Samoylenko were in the water up to their shoulders. "Suppose you had loved a woman and had been living with her for two or three years, and then left off caring for her, as one does, and began to feel that you had nothing in common with her. How would you behave in that case?"
Laevsky is a dissolute nouveau intellectual, a son of the landed gentry with no calling and no ambition and, like the idle sensualist friends of Bazarov in Fathers and Sons, no connection to either the past, present or future of Russia. He's a university-educated hedonist who thinks only of himself and how he appears to the people he wishes to impress. Laevsky has seduced a number of women, the most recent being Nadyezhda, the woman whom he above declares he no longer loves. Laevsky has taken Nadyezhda away from her husband in Petersburg, spririting her to the Caucasus in the name of free love and hedonism. His dreams of the good life are similar, on the surface, to those of Chernyshevsky's enlightened radicals in What is to be Done?

It's worth noting that Laevsky--as are all of the main characters in "The Duel"--is a complex character, and while he is a lazy aristocrat, he is aware of his laziness, his moral weaknesses, the horrific life that awaits him if he continues along the deceptive, immoral path he's taking.

Chekhov has not, in "The Duel," written a dialectical novel with flat characters representing ideas, but there are certainly ideas in opposition. Laevsky's philosophical antagonist is a zoologist named Von Koren, who has come to the Caucasus to prepare for a long scientific expedition. He is very much like Chernyshevsky's Rahkmetov character in his approach to the world.

2. About the utilitarian superman, Von Koren, as described by Laevsky:
Von Koren is independent and obstinate: he works on the Black Sea because nobody else is working there; he is at loggerheads with the university, does not care to know his comrades and other scientific men because he is first of all a despot and only secondly a zoologist. And you'll see he'll do something. He is already dreaming that when he comes back from his expedition he will purify our universities from intrigue and mediocrity, and will make the scientific men mind their p's and q's. Despotism is just as strong in science as in the army. And he is spending his second summer in this stinking little town because he would rather be first in a village than second in a town. Here he is a king and an eagle; he keeps all the inhabitants under his thumb and oppresses them with his authority. He has appropriated every one, he meddles in other people's affairs; everything is of use to him, and every one is afraid of him.
Von Koren doesn't talk about revolution (Chekhov was no revolutionary), but he is practical, hard-working, logical and thinks that everyone either must labor productively or get out of the way. He despises Laevsky for a number of reasons:
"From the first he struck me by his exceptional falsity, which simply made me sick. As a friend I pitched into him, asking him why he drank too much, why he lived beyond his means and got into debt, why he did nothing and read nothing, why he had so little culture and so little knowledge; and in answer to all my questions he used to smile bitterly, sigh, and say: 'I am a failure, a superfluous man'; or: 'What do you expect, my dear fellow, from us, the debris of the serf-owning class?' or: 'We are degenerate. . . .' Or he would begin a long rigmarole about Onyegin, Petchorin, Byron's Cain, and Bazarov, of whom he would say: 'They are our fathers in flesh and in spirit.' So we are to understand that it was not his fault that Government envelopes lay unopened in his office for weeks together, and that he drank and taught others to drink, but Onyegin, Petchorin, and Turgenev, who had invented the failure and the superfluous man, were responsible for it. The cause of his extreme dissoluteness and unseemliness lies, do you see, not in himself, but somewhere outside in space. And so--an ingenious idea!--it is not only he who is dissolute, false, and disgusting, but we . . . 'we men of the eighties,' 'we the spiritless, nervous offspring of the serf-owning class'; 'civilisation has crippled us' . . . in fact, we are to understand that such a great man as Laevsky is great even in his fall: that his dissoluteness, his lack of culture and of moral purity, is a phenomenon of natural history, sanctified by inevitability; that the causes of it are world-wide, elemental; and that we ought to hang up a lamp before Laevsky, since he is the fated victim of the age, of influences, of heredity, and so on. All the officials and their ladies were in ecstasies when they listened to him..."
Von Koren is actually a Nietzschean, paraphrasing Twilight of the Idols when he passes judgment on Laevsky:
"Since he is incorrigible, he can only be made innocuous in one way. . . ." Von Koren passed his finger round his throat. "Or he might be drowned . . .", he added. "In the interests of humanity and in their own interests, such people ought to be destroyed. They certainly ought."
3. About how Von Koren is also, oddly enough, almost a version of Dostoyevsky's Underground Man: Chekhov has the scientist state Dostoyevsky's argument in favor of the irrational, even invoking the refrain of "two plus two is four" from Notes From Underground when Von Koren rails against Laevsky:
"Look the devil straight in the eye, and if he's the devil, tell him he's the devil, and don't go calling to Kant or Hegel for explanations...Twice two's four, and a stone's a stone. Here to-morrow we have a duel. You and I will say it's stupid and absurd, that the duel is out of date, that there is no real difference between the aristocratic duel and the drunken brawl in the pot-house, and yet we shall not stop, we shall go there and fight. So there is some force stronger than our reasoning. We shout that war is plunder, robbery, atrocity, fratricide; we cannot look upon blood without fainting; but the French or the Germans have only to insult us for us to feel at once an exaltation of spirit; in the most genuine way we shout 'Hurrah!' and rush to attack the foe. You will invoke the blessing of God on our weapons, and our valour will arouse universal and general enthusiasm. Again it follows that there is a force, if not higher, at any rate stronger, than us and our philosophy."
Of course Von Koren believes that through reason and science he can overcome this irrational biological destiny. What keeps Von Koren from being merely the antithesis of Laevsky is that inside, he is eaten at by jealousy, lust and pettiness; and he is moved by pride. He's a complex, multifaceted character.

4. About free love, which in Chernyshevsky is a powerful force to release all of humanity from bondage and generate a utopian society: Here free love is a catalyst to the battle between the nihilist and the utilitarian. In "The Duel," free love also turns out to be impractical, a false ideal.
Laevsky's impression of free love:

"I fell in love with a married woman and she with me. . . . To begin with, we had kisses, and calm evenings, and vows, and Spencer, and ideals, and interests in common. . . . What a deception! We really ran away from her husband, but we lied to ourselves and made out that we ran away from the emptiness of the life of the educated class. We pictured our future like this: to begin with, in the Caucasus, while we were getting to know the people and the place, I would put on the Government uniform and enter the service; then at our leisure we would pick out a plot of ground, would toil in the sweat of our brow, would have a vineyard and a field, and so on. If you were in my place, or that zoologist of yours, Von Koren, you might live with Nadyezhda Fyodorovna for thirty years, perhaps, and might leave your heirs a rich vineyard and three thousand acres of maize; but I felt like a bankrupt from the first day. In the town you have insufferable heat, boredom, and no society; if you go out into the country, you fancy poisonous spiders, scorpions, or snakes lurking under every stone and behind every bush, and beyond the fields--mountains and the desert. Alien people, an alien country, a wretched form of civilisation--all that is not so easy, brother, as walking on the Nevsky Prospect in one's fur coat, arm-in-arm with Nadyezhda Fyodorovna, dreaming of the sunny South. What is needed here is a life and death struggle, and I'm not a fighting man. A wretched neurasthenic, an idle gentleman . . . . From the first day I knew that my dreams of a life of labour and of a vineyard were worthless. As for love, I ought to tell you that living with a woman who has read Spencer and has followed you to the ends of the earth is no more interesting than living with any Anfissa or Akulina. There's the same smell of ironing, of powder, and of medicines, the same curl-papers every morning, the same self-deception."
Nadyezhda's impression of free love:

She had on two occasions in Laevsky's absence received a visit from Kirilin, the police captain: once in the morning when Laevsky had gone to bathe, and another time at midnight when he was playing cards. Remembering this, Nadyezhda Fyodorovna flushed crimson, and looked round at the cook as though she might overhear her thoughts. The long, insufferably hot, wearisome days, beautiful languorous evenings and stifling nights, and the whole manner of living, when from morning to night one is at a loss to fill up the useless hours, and the persistent thought that she was the prettiest young woman in the town, and that her youth was passing and being wasted, and Laevsky himself, though honest and idealistic, always the same, always lounging about in his slippers, biting his nails, and wearying her with his caprices, led by degrees to her becoming possessed by desire, and as though she were mad, she thought of nothing else day and night. Breathing, looking, walking, she felt nothing but desire. The sound of the sea told her she must love; the darkness of evening--the same; the mountains--the same. . . .And when Kirilin began paying her attentions, she had neither the power nor the wish to resist, and surrendered to him. . . .She reflected joyfully that there was nothing terrible about her infidelity. Her soul had no part in her infidelity; she still loved Laevsky, and that was proved by the fact that she was jealous of him, was sorry for him, and missed him when he was away. Kirilin had turned out to be very mediocre, rather coarse though handsome; everything was broken off with him already and there would never be anything more. What had happened was over; it had nothing to do with any one, and if Laevsky found it out he would not believe in it.
Certainly ideas of "free love" were floating around in Russia before Chernyshevsky wrote about Vera in What is to be Done?. As in Chernyshevsky (and hey, Tolstoy), the primary story of "The Duel" is that of a woman who leaves her husband for a man she will love better. Unlike Vera, the heroine of "The Duel" is harassed and humiliated by the people who surround her:
"You are a terrible sinner. You broke the vow you made your husband at the altar. You seduced a fine young man, who perhaps had he not met you might have taken a lawful partner for life from a good family in his own circle, and would have been like every one else now. You have ruined his youth. Don't speak, don't speak, my dear! I never believe that man is to blame for our sins. It is always the woman's fault. Men are frivolous in domestic life; they are guided by their minds, and not by their hearts. There's a great deal they don't understand; woman understands it all. Everything depends on her. To her much is given and from her much will be required. Oh, my dear, if she had been more foolish or weaker than man on that side, God would not have entrusted her with the education of boys and girls. And then, my dear, you entered on the path of vice, forgetting all modesty; any other woman in your place would have hidden herself from people, would have sat shut up at home, and would only have been seen in the temple of God, pale, dressed all in black and weeping, and every one would have said in genuine compassion: 'O Lord, this erring angel is coming back again to Thee . . . .' But you, my dear, have forgotten all discretion; have lived openly, extravagantly; have seemed to be proud of your sin; you have been gay and laughing, and I, looking at you, shuddered with horror, and have been afraid that thunder from Heaven would strike our house while you were sitting with us. My dear, don't speak, don't speak," cried Marya Konstantinovna, observing that Nadyezhda Fyodorovna wanted to speak. "Trust me, I will not deceive you, I will not hide one truth from the eyes of your soul. Listen to me, my dear. . . . God marks great sinners, and you have been marked-out: only think--your costumes have always been appalling."
"fine young man" makes me laugh. It's never stated directly, but it's true that in "The Duel," none of the civil servants aside from Von Koren are actually doing anything useful. The whole of the Russo-Caucasus society is set up like a resort town, not a proper provincial government seat. Everyone is bored and in debt and more or less at the end of the line, even apparently the children. There is nothing to do, and nobody is doing it. Marya Konstantinovna may sit in judgment of Nadyezhda's actions, but she and her circle are not shining examples of humanity, either. The whole of the town is superfluous, indolent, pointless and small-minded. It is also worth noting that Nadyezhda is tempted by several men in the village, and considers an affair with a merchant's son as a way to cancel a 300-ruble debt. Chernyshevsky's Vera would never think of that.

In the end, then, there are four forces at opposition in Chekhov's story: The nihilist 'superfluous man' Laevsky, the rationalist Von Koren, traditional middle-class Russian society, and the Church (as represented by a young deacon who tends to find everything amusing). In my reading (I know, I said I'd avoid interpretation, but I find I can't), Chekhov rejects all of the moral forces except that of the Church, though none of the philosophy is rigorously worked out and the story ends, as do most of Chekhov's tales, by dissolving into an unknown future rather than by coalescing around an epiphany. Like the real world, the story world of "The Duel" cannot be reasoned into submission.

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Antosha in Prague, another excerpt

From the work-in-progress, no dialogue this time. This might actually give a better sense of how these stories are turning out.
Tatyana drifted across the room to the wardrobe and placed two fingers on the right-hand door. She was curious about the state of some of Anton’s clothes, but unsure if the doorman would soon return. There would be ample time in the future to look over her husband’s suits and shirts. Turning her back on the armoire, Tatyana let her gaze fall upon the writing desk. In the middle of the green blotter sat a thick bundle of pages, tied with a long string. It was Anton’s dissertation, ready to be handed over to the committee. Tatyana tried to recall what the subject was that Anton had so labored to distill down into crystalline statements on paper. She could remember only the mention of discredited scientific ideas, such as garlic interfering with the magnetism of lodestone, and ingestion of mint inhibiting the natural clotting of blood. Or perhaps these were the new ideas which Anton was promoting in his dissertation. It was impossible to know, as the dissertation itself was so terribly dull, written in the opaque language of science, a tongue Tatyana believed no man actually understood though many pretended fluency.