Search This Blog

Feb 25, 2013

Dostoevsky: Life

Fyodor Dostoevsky, was a Russian novelist. He was born November 11, 1821 and died on February 9, 1881. Although Fyodor Dostoevsky was of Russian descent and his works primarily examine the lives of Russians in the nineteenth century, his works have left an indelible mark over Western literature and world literature. In addition to writing novels, Fyodor Dostoevsky also wrote essays and short stories. His most famous novels include The IdiotThe Brother Karamozov, and Crime and Punishment. Fyodor Dostoevsky examined the metal interior of his characters. This psychological approach examined how social, spiritual and political forces might interact in the psyche of an individual. For Fyodor Dostoevsky, the important mover of his characters was ideologies and concepts whether they were meek Christians, destructive nihilists, dissipated libertines, or intense Pyrrhic rebels. Many see these characters as acting as signs of concepts as opposed to fully realistic characters. For this reason, many see the works of Fyodor Dostoevsky as the precursor to Russian Symbolism. Fyodor Dostoevsky’s forward looking approach to characterization and perception is seen by many as anticipating and influencing the development of existentialism in the twentieth century.
Although many embrace Fyodor Dostoevsky as an important voice in literature, he had his detractors. Most famously, Vladimir Nabokov attacked Fyodor Dostoevsky for being a writer of middling talent. Nabokov continues to trash his literary predecessor by declaring the works of Fyodor Dostoevsky to be a desert of platitudes. Nabokov also detested some of Fyodor Dostoevsky’s themes. Fyodor Dostoevsky kept the teachings of the Russian Orthodox Church in mind as he composed his work. This has led some critics including Vladimir Nabokov to accuse Fyodor Dostoevsky of producing devices for proselytizing and not literature of the finest quality. Perhaps the least surprising criticism came from Leo Tolstoy who claimed that he knew the ending of Crime and Punishment after only a few chapters. However, the two great authors had a deep respect for each other. Leo Tolstoy reportedly wept when he learned of Fyodor Dostoevsky’s death.
Despite his virulent detractors, most recognize Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s rightful place in the pantheon of great novelists. His works have influenced James Joyce, Ernest Hemingway and Virginia Woof. Mikhail Bakhtin claims that Dostoyevsky’s work has a polyphonic quality that examines the novel from multiple angles. The conflict between the various points of views clash and build into a precarious climax.
On November 11, 1821, Fyodor Mikhailovich Dostoyevsky was born in Moscow. His parents Mikhail and Maria Dostoevsky had seven children of whom Fyodor Dostoyevsky was the second. Mariinsky Hospital for the Poor employed Dostoyevsky’s father. Until Fyodor Dostoevsky was sixteen, he lived with his family in an apartment located on the property of Mariinksy Hospital. Fyodor Dostoevsky grew up amid an orphanage, an insane asylum, and a cemetery for criminals. The stark confrontation with those individuals Russian society had abandoned shaped the aesthetic and social outlook of the young Fyodor Dostoevsky. Fyodor Dostoevsky’s observations these social phenomena was tempered by his father’s devout Christianity. His parents forbade Fyodor Dostoevsky from interacting with the patients. He often disobeyed and went to the hospital gardens to talk with the ill.
At the age of nine, Fyodor Dostoevsky experienced his first epileptic seizure. He would use his experience of this condition in his later work.
When Fyodor Dostoevsky was sixteen he enrolled in the Nikolayev Military Engineering Institute. Fyodor Dostoevsky and his brothers were required to move to Saint Petersburg to attend classes. This event followed the death of Fyodor Dostoevsky’s mother in 1837. His mother had suffered from tuberculosis. Two years later his father would also die. Some have suggested that his father’s serfs murdered him by restricting his movement and drowning him by pouring vodka down his throat. Some critics see a similarity between this death and a story related in Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Notes from the Underground.In 1928, Sigmund Freud claimed that Fyodor Dostoevsky’s character the dissipated patriarch Fyodor Pavlovich Karamazov from The Brothers Karamazovhad arisen from the authors Mikhail Dostoevsky’s experience with his father.
While at school, Fyodor Dostoevsky studied the works of William Shakespeare, E. T. A. Hoffman, Victor Hugo, Blaise Pascal. and Friedrich Schiller. Fyodor Dostoevsky was particularly influenced by Friedrich Schiller as a young man. As he matured as an artist, Fyodor Dostoevsky would come to ridicule Schiller. Although Fyodor Dostoevsky detested the mathematics requirements, he successfully completed his exams in 1841. Due to his successful scores on the exams, Fyodor Dostoevsky was award a commission.
In 1842, Fyodor Dostoevsky was elevated to the rank of lieutenant. The following year, Fyodor Dostoevsky created a Russian translation of Honore de Balzc’s novel Eugenie Grandet. This translation was largely ignored by the reading public. In 1844 Fyodor Dostoevsky left military service and he began to craft his own works of fiction. In 1846, the publication A Petersburg Collection published Fyodor Dostoevsky’s first novel Poor Folk. One anecdote states that the journal’s editor, Nikolai Nekrasov, declared “A new [Nikolai] Gogol has arisen!” Many literary critics, including Vissarion Belinsky, also gave this work much acclaim rocketing Fyodor Dostoevsky to literary fame.
Fyodor Dostoevsky’s reputation was shaken with the publication of his novelThe Double in 1846. The work was poorly received, and many began to doubt the young author’s potential to rising to the status of a great Russian writer.
In 1848, Tsar Nicholas I became increasingly distrustful of organizations that he felt might undermine the autocracy. The government became increasingly paranoid about the spread of the revolutions in Western Europe. In 1849, Fyodor Dostoevsky was arrested and imprisoned for his participation in the Petrashevsky Circle. In the November of 1849, Fyodor Dostoevsky and the other members of Pertashevsky Circle were condemned to death. The government forces held a mock execution after which Fyodor Dostoevsky was re-sentenced to a four-year exile of hard labor in Omsk Siberia. His confinement became physically and psychologically crushing.
The imprisonment and exile of Fyodor Dostoevsky would lead to the composition of The House of the Dead in 1854. After his release, the government required Fyodor Dostoevsky to submit to service in the Siberian Regiment. He spent five more years in the military. While in Siberia, Fyodor Dostoevsky started a romantic relationship with a wife of an acquaintance, Maria Dmitrievna Isayeva. Fyodor Dostoevsky’s acquaintance died leaving the way open for the increase of romantic activities. In 1857, Fyodor Dostoevsky and Maria Isayeva were married.
The incarceration and renewed service shifted Fyodor Dostoevsky’s spiritual and political ideologies. He rejected the Western ideals of his youth. Fyodor Dostoevsky embraced the Slavophile cultural movement. He would become even more devoted to his Russian Orthodox faith. Fyodor Dostoevsky now advocated for the Christian ideals of suffering and submission. Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s later literature reflected this new conservative worldview. He abandoned the Western dramas of his youth for darker stories lines that revealed a greater complexity. In some of Fyodor Dostoevsky’s work The Possessed and The Diary of a Writer ridiculed the Socialism and Nihilism he had explored as a young man.
At the end of 1859, Fyodor Dostoevsky came back to the Russian capital of Saint Petersburg. He and his older brother Mikhail started the literary publicationsTime and Epoch. The imperial government closed Time for its coverage of the 1863 Polish Uprising. During this time, Fyodor Dostoevsky began traveling to casinos throughout Europe.
By 1864, Fyodor Dostoevsky’s wife was dead and he was struggling financially. Fyodor Dostoevsky was consumed by depression and obsessive gambling. This gambling and other family debts became increasingly crippling. Fyodor Dostoevsky sped through the composition of Crime and Punishment in order get an advance from the publisher. In order to evade his creditors, Fyodor Dostoevsky traveled to Western Europe. In 1867, Fyodor Dostoevsky married the twenty-year-old Anna Grigorevna Snitkina. Fyodor Dostoevsky wrote the Writer’s Diary, a series of current event articles and short fiction between 1873 and 1881. This endeavor was incredibly successful.
On February 9, 1891, Fyodor Dostoevsky died of a hemorrhage of the lung.

Feb 23, 2013

Dostoevsky, Beckett: Problem of Freedom

What did we see as we moved from museum to museum? One key issue that we were tracing was an historic evolution in thought about the role of the individual in relation to the community. In the Louvre, if we consider the period from the Renaissance until the Enlightenment (roughly the 1400s-1700s), we saw A LOT of Christian-oriented paintings and sculptures and most of these depicted biblical scenes. The works that weren’t specifically Christian, such as the Mona Lisa, depicted scenes in which the character or setting was clearly defined and usually arranged in a harmonious, balanced manner. The scene might have been violent or grotesque, but the depiction was “classical.” In other words, there was always a clear narrative or point of view.
If you think of the Pompidou, however, which includes mostly 20th Century art, then you get an entirely different and even opposite picture. In the Pompidou, you often had to ask yourself, “What is it?” or “What does it mean?” The works there often seemed out of balance, dissonant, and lacking a clear narrative or point of view. If there were any works that referred to Christianity, they did so ironically. Characters and settings were sometimes so wholly contorted or fragmented that they made little sense in any “real world” way.
I would argue that the Rodin museum and the Orsay lie somewhere in between the Louvre and the Pompidou and represent the transition between the two.
Why? What does this change signal? One thing at least that it tells us about is the problem (and rewards) of freedom. You know that in France, in 1789, the Revolution brought about the end of the monarchy and the introduction of democracy. Even though this was a turbulent and uneven transition, the idea that the individual (you and I) deserve the right to exist as independent agents of our own destiny – outside of the demands and strictures of the church or the state – represented a fundamental shift in the way people thought of themselves.  This revolution in thought was taking place in England and America as well. Of course this revolution in thought, the movement toward a conception of the “Rights of Man,” was incomplete. Only white men laid claim to their rights originally, denying them to others, but the die was cast, to use a cliche. Once the church and the state fell as external arbiters of control, then it was only a matter of time before “everyone” felt empowered to assert their basic human rights. (We are still dealing with this revolution in America, as gays and lesbians are struggling to obtain their basic human rights.)
So why is freedom a problem, in this context? Freedom is a problem because it forces the individual to take responsibility for their actions and to confront the world on their own terms. And this is scary as hell. It’s much easier to drink cheap beer and watch reruns of The Office than to confront the emptiness of your own life and seriously consider your place in the cosmos.
Besides that problem, an argument could be made (and has been made) that the relative elevation of the individual and devaluation of the institutions of church and state have actually destabilized society. If you have no church to believe in and no monarchy to pay allegiance to, then you’re more or less on your own. Into this breach, some have argued, stepped various authoritarian movements – Fascism, Nazism, Communism/Stalinism – that provided at least some semblance of order and meaning. Of course, such movements also provided World War. This is a simplification, but the English critic Isaiah Berlin has argued, I think convincingly, that the cult of individuality that has evolved in the West since the time of the Enlightenment has engendered totalitarian movements, movements that have harnessed the “collective power” of individuals against those who seemed less than “human.” The artwork in the Pompidou reflects the sense of fragmentation, chaos, and violence that has been unleashed since Voltaire wrote Candide.
Fyodor Dostoevsky’s “Grand Inquisitor” poses a question. Is it better to choose “freedom,” especially since freedom results in inevitable conflict, or is it better to choose “safety,” even if in order to achieve that safety we must give up our freedom. This is a question that we have to deal with every day.
As we move out of discussing works that arise of the Enlightenment, we are faced with the crises created by Enlightenment ideas – individual liberty, scientific discovery and exploration, Protestantism. Voltaire’s response to the old order, the old narrative – the aristocracy, the church – is primarily satirical, at least in Candide, but his solution is arguably conservative, or at least not revolutionary: tend your garden. This solution places the nexus of the argument squarely on the shoulders of the individual, but this individual is not a revolutionary in the Marxian sense. Candide is no revolutionary.
The Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoevsky’s “Grand Inquisitor,” (1880) which is a chapter out of his novel The Brothers Karamazov, while specifically concerning the Roman Catholic Church, is  about this problem of freedom. If we are all essentially equal, if there is no authority over us determining how we are to live and providing us with basic necessities, then how are we to satisfy our needs without killing each other, without anarchy? The English writer Thomas Hobbes, in the 17th Century, argued that we cannot. Such lives of freedom are “nasty, brutish, and short,” he wrote in Leviathan; consequently, we require a ruler (a monarch) endowed with absolute power who can maintain order and provide for the well-being of the masses. Hobbes believed that we must even give our freedom of conscience over to the monarch, who will then decide what “we” are to believe. Is it possible to “love” the monarch in such a system?
The Inquisitor argues that Christ offered freedom of belief to all humanity, essentially viewing all people as equal before God. The Inquisitor argues that by refusing the devil’s temptations, Christ was asserting that one’s love of God cannot arise out of fear or manipulation, but out of free choice. After all, is it love if one is forced to it? The problem, the Inquisitor argues, is that given freedom, humanity will revert to Hobbes’ chaotic state. We will destroy each other. The Inquisitor’s solution, then, is to provide the “millions” with the things they crave – bread, moral certitude, and universality. The church will demand absolute obedience, but in return it will provide the “millions” with peace, the peace of innocent children. In this way, the Inquisitor argues, the church is actually more benevolent than Christ himself, who misjudged human nature and assumed that we are essentially “good” when in fact we are essentially “bad.”
This solution, however, is not simply to be dismissed as the solution of a corrupt church. Rather, it is the solution offered by every narrative – political, economic, and religious – that seeks to tell the “millions” how to live. Karl Marx’s narrative in The Communist Manifesto (1848)  is another example of a narrative that seeks to justify a certain “will to power.” And in this sense, it is the same narrative as that developed by one of the “Founding Fathers” of liberal democracy, John Locke. Locke argued that we are all naturally free, but he further asserted that capitalism and competition were right and natural. Marx would agree with the first part of this argument, but he would argue that capitalism and competition are finally barriers to real freedom, the freedom of the proletariat – the “millions” – from the oppression of the bourgeoisie. Such freedom, however, became a kind of oppression of its own, at least as practiced in the former Soviet Union. But in relation to the “lies” offered by the Inquisitor, the narrative offered by Marx seems almost refreshing.
In any case, what is clear is that in the 19th Century, Western and Russian literature were trying to deal with the problem of the proper relationship between the individual and society. Irish playwright Samuel Beckett’s play Krapp’s Last Tape (1958) is also about the problem of the individual who is free to make choices. In the case of Krapp, the play’s protagonist, he realizes that he has made the wrong choices. (You can also view the complete play on Youtube. It’s really strange and worth viewing.
Krapp has made audio recordings of himself every year for many years on the anniversary of his birthday. The play takes place on a night when he is about to make a new recording. First, however, he listens to recordings of himself from previous years. What this means is that you have narratives within narratives. You have Krapp in the “present” day listening to, fast-forwarding, and commenting upon the Krapp of the “old” day. The old Krapp often makes predictions and decisions about the future that the present-day Krapp no long believes in or knows are untrue. This predicament sums up the conflict at the heart of much of modern World literature: In a world in which all the narratives (of family, of church, of state, of everything) have been challenged or fractured, then how do we answer the big three questions: Who am I? What is my purpose? How do I know?
Once you have read the “Grand Inquisitor,” and Krapp’s Last Tape, please Reply three separate times. First, answer the question, “What do you think of the Inquisitor’s reasoning?” Quote from the text in your answer. Second, answer the question, “What does Krapp regret the most and why?” Quote from the text in your answer. You can answer these questions by simply replying to this Post. Third, reply to another of your peer’s comments with a substantive, thorough, respectful, reasoned argument. You may agree or disagree with the other student, but explain your reasoning.

Feb 16, 2013

18th C: Prose and Reason

The eighteenth century, says Legouis in A Short History of English Literature,"viewed as a whole has a distinctive character." It was "the classical age" in English literature, and, as such, held and practised some basic principles concerning life and literature. Even then one should avoid sweeping generalizations/The temptation to generalize-the eighteenth century particularly-is hard to overcome. "Few centuries," says George Sherburn in A Literary History of. England edited by Albert C. Baugh, "have with more facility been reduced to a formula tHan the eighteenth....Few centuries, to be sure, have demonstrated more unity of character than superficially considered the eighteenth seems to have possessed." However, it is fallacious to believe that there is a clear cleavage between the seventeenth century and the eighteenth. Observes Sherburn: "The ideas of the later seventeenth century continue into the eighteenth." At any rate, in the eighteenth century there was the completion of the reaction against Elizabethan romanticism. This reaction had started in the seventeenth century with Denham, Waller, and Dryden. Pope and his contemporaries stood on the other extreme to Elizabethan romanticists and ushered in "the age of prose and reason," as Matthew Arnold characterises the eighteenth century. Now, let us see how and how far the eighteenth century was "an age of prose and reason."

Dominance of Reason:
Pope and his followers give much importance to reason in their modes of thinking and expressing. Reason may variously manifest itself as good sense, rationalism, intellect, wit or just dry logicism, but it is definitely against all excessive emotionalism, sentimentalism, extravagance, eccentricity, lack of realism, escapism, and even imagination. It is easy to see that in the eighteenth century reason was exalted to a shibboleth. Cazamian maintains: "The true source and the real quality of English classicism are of a psychological nature. Its ideal, its characteristics, its method, all resolve themselves into a general searching after rationality." This search which started in the age of Dryden culminated in the age of Pope. Cazamian maintains in thisconnexion: "One may say that the age of Pope lives more fully, more spontaneously, at the pitch of that dominant intellectuality, which during the preceding age was chiefly an irresistible impulse, a kind of contagious intoxication." This reign of reason and common sense continued into the middle of the century when new ideas and voices appeared, and the precursors of the English romantics of the nineteenth century appeared on the scene. All the important writers of the age-­Swift, Pope, and Dr. Johnson—glorified reason both in their literary and critical work and, conversely, made unreason and bad sense the recurring targets of their satire. Swift in the fourth book ofGulliver's Travels, for example, chastises Yahoos for being creatures of impulse, without reason or common sense. On the other hand, Houyhnhnms are glorified as tenacious adherents of these qualities. The satire on Yahoos is. by implication, a satire on the human beings who resemble them so closely. Thus the fourth book is the most terrible satire on human lack of good sense and reason.

Imitation of the Ancients:
This glorification of reason also- manifests itself in the form of the stress laid on the imitation of the "ancients," that is, the Greek and Roman writers of antiquity. It was thought contrary to reason to be led by. one's own impulses and eccentricities and to devise one's own idiom for expression. Too much of subjectivity was considered irrational. It was believed that a man should cultivate unrefined and "natural" taste by subjecting it to the influence of classical writers. Much stress was laid on controlling and disciplining one's heady feelings and wild imagination and the personal way of expression with the help of the study of the classics. We find in this century many translations and adaptations of the classics as also their "imitations," not to speak of their rich echoes in most works of the century. The eighteenth century-particularly its first half-is also called the classical age of English literature on account of two reasons which W. H. Hudson enumerates as follows:
(i) "...the poets and critics of this age believed that the works of the writers of classical antiquity (really of the Latin writers), presented the best of models and the ultimate standards of literary taste."
(ii) " these Latin writers they had little faith in the promptings and guidance of individual genius, and much in laws and rules imposed by the authority of the past."

In 1700 Walsh wrote to Pope: "The best of the modern poets in all languages are those that have nearest copied the ancients." Swift in The Battle of the Books showed the supremacy of the ancients over all the succeeding writers. Walsh's expression copied the ancients should not lead one to believe that eighteenth-century writers were no more than copyists and as such are open to the charge of plagiarism. What they copied was only the good taste and reason of the ancients. Well did Pope observe: "Those who say our thoughts are not our own because they resemble the Ancients' may as well say our Faces are not our own because they are like our Fathers." Thus the ancients were to be respected as guides and models, not as tyrants. Among the ancients the most respected were the Latin writers of the Age of Augustus and among them, too, particularly Virgil and Horace. The one reason why this age is called the Augustan age is this. However, the English "ancients" like Chaucer and Spenser were not respected.Addison in his critical poem Account of the Greatest English Poets observes about The Faerie Queene :

.... But now the mystic tale mat pleased of yore Can charm an understanding age no more.

Chaucer is dismissed as a "rude barbarian" who tries in vain to make the readers laugh with his jests in "unpolished strain." Thomas Rymer savagely criticised Shakespeare.

"First Follow Nature":
A. R. Humphreys observes: "Basically, the critical injunction which gained the widest, indeed, almost universal, acceptance was the call to "follow Nature". In the famous lines from Pope's Essay oh Criticism advice is tendered to writers:

First follow Nature, and your judgement frame By her just standard, which is still the same : Unerring Nature, still divinely bright, One clear unchanged, and universal light, Life, force, and beauty, must to all impart, At once the source, and end, and test of Art.

Pope's "Nature" was not the "Nature" of the romantics like Wordsworth and Coleridge. The Augustans were not much interested in forests, flowers, trees, birds, etc. which inspired poets like Wordsworth. Nor did Pope and his contemporaries mean by "Nature" that Nature which, td use the words of Louis I. Bredvold, "Sir Isaac Newton had recently interpreted in terms of mathematical physics, in his Principia Mathematica (1687); they could hardly have gone to physics for a literary standard, and they were moreover weH aware that their concept of Nature antedated Newtefffeyienturies." For them Nature indicated, what Bredvohtxalls, "a rational and intelligible -moral order in theliniverse, according to which the various experiences of mankind could be confidently and properly vahled." Nature to them meant, in the words of A. R. Humphreys, "the moral course of the world or as ideal truth by which art should be guided." Man's subjective feelings were thus discreditediand sacrificed to "tne laws of Nature." As Basil Willey observes in The Nineteenth-­Century Background, "the individual mind was carefully ruled out of the whole scheme." Even in the field of religion, reason and Nature ruled the roost. This was the age of the spread of natural religion or Deism which believed in the existence of God but disbelieved in any revealed religion, not excepting Christianity. People were also talking about,"natural morality." The doctrines of the reason-loving Deists were repudiated by orthodox theologists, not passionately but with reason.

Rules: This eighteenth-century emphasis on Nature often took the form of the emphasis on the "rules" formulated by the ancients. These rules were supposed to be of universal applicability. Nature was the criterion of propriety, and the rules of the ancients were to be respected as they, in the words of Pope, "are Nature still but Nature methodised." And further,

Nature like liberty, is but restrained By the same laws which first herself ordained.

The tendency to adhere to the rules went against the eccentricities and irrationalities of individual genius. The eighteenth century was. infact, an age of formalism in ai! spheres-literature architecture, gardening, and even social etiquette. A critic maintains: 'Just as a gentleman might not act naturally (that is, in accordance with his impulses), but must follow exact rules in doffing his hat, or addressing a lady, or entering a room, or offering his snuff-box to a friend, so the writers of this age lost individuality and became formal and artificial."

Against Enthusiasm and Imagination:
The adoration of reason naturally implied a keen distrust of enthusiasm and imagination which could lead a man to -ludicrous extremes. EighteeBtitcentufyliterature is, onsequently, devoid of the enthusiasm, elemental passion, mysterious suggestiveness, and heady imagination which characterize romantic literature. These romantic characteristics were discredited as they led one to violate Nature. If a writer abandoned himself to emotions or impulses, or let his imagination run away uncontrolled, the result could be disastrous for his writing. Sir Richard Blackmore observed in his "Essay on Epick Poetry" (in -Essays upon Various Subjects) that the writers of old romances "were seized with an irregular Poetic phrenzy, and having Decency and Probability in Contempt, fill'd the world with endless Absurdities." Swift in "Letter to a Young Clergyman" expresses his distrust of the passionate eloquence of a particular preacher. "I do not see," says he, "how this talent of moving the passions can be of any great use towards directing Ghristian men in the conduct of their lives." In Section IX of Tale of a Tub he scarifies the Puritan enthusiasm by representing it as wind. Likewise the Earl of Shaftesbury in his Letter Concerning Enthusiasm (1708) lashes, religious enthusiasm and fanaticism.

The eighteenth century was doubtlessly an age of great prose, but not of great poetry. When Matthew Arnold-calls it an age of prose, he suggests that even the poetry of the period was of the nature of prose, or versified prose. It:is he who observed that Dryden and Pope are the-classics not of our poetry but of prose. Among the greatest prose writers of the age are Addison, Steele, and Swift. They took English prose from the antiquity of Burton, Browne, and others to the balance, clarity, and simplicity of the modern times. They made prose functional, using it not for impressing but enlightening the reader. In the field of prose the reaction against romantic extravagance and involvedness, started by Dryden, was brought to a logical conclusion by the prose writers of the age of Queen Anne mentioned above.

In poetry, however, the age has not to show much excellence. Imagination and passion came to be^replaoed by the ideals of clearness, perspecuity, and beauty of expression. These ideals appear to some as the ideals of good prose, not good poetry. Regularity, order, and artistic control are certaintly desirable but no substitutes for poetic talent or inspiration. One may be tempted to ask with Roy Campbell: "They use snaffle and the curb, all right. But where's the bloody horse?" Comparing the poetry and prose of the eighteenth century, Long observes: "Now for the first time we must chronicle the triumph of English prose. A multitude of practical interests arising from the new social and political conditions demanded expression not simply in books, but more especially in pamphlets, magazines, and newspapers. Poetry was inadequate for such a task: hence the development of prose, of the 'unfettered word' as Dante calls it-a development which astonishes us by its rapidity and excellence. The graceful elegance of Addison's essays, the terse vigour of Swift's satires, the artistic finish of Fielding's novels, the sonorous eloquence of Gibbon's history and of Burke's orations-these have no parallel in the poetry of the age. Indeed, poetry itself became prosaic in this respect, and it was used not for the creative works of imagination but for essays, for satire, for criticism-for exactly the same practical ends as was prose. The poetry of the first half of the century, as typified by the work of Pope, is polished and witty enough, but artificial; it lacks fire, fine feeling, enthusiasm, the glow of the Elizabethan Age and the moral earnestness of Puritanism. In a word, it interests us as a study of life, rather than delights or inspires us by its appeal to the imagination. The variety and excellence of prose works, and the development of a serviceable prose style, which had been begun by Dryden, until it served to express clearly every human interest and emotion,-these are the chief literary glories of the eighteenth century."

Feb 10, 2013

Life of PI

Source: Tomconoboy
Life of Pi is one of those novels that is famous for being rejected (at least five times, apparently) before finally being published. It went on, of course, to win the Booker Prize. Contradictory though it may sound, neither fact is surprising. Life of Pi is a fairly extraordinary novel, extraordinary in both a good and a bad sense.

It is in three parts and these parts, although they are wildly different, are supposed to flow seamlessly, held together by the symbolism the author has created. This is a self-avowedly spiritual novel. “I have a story that will make you believe in God,” says a character, Mamaji, early in the novel. The novel as a whole isn’t so didactic – not quite – but it is certainly strongly suggesting to us that there is something unseen in the fabric of the universe. Barack Obama, for one, has fallen for it. The novel is, he told its author, “an elegant proof of God, and the power of storytelling”. It’s certainly the latter, but it goes no distance towards proving the former. Obama does hit on something, though: this conflation of storytelling and spirituality is a significant element of the novel, as we shall see later.

Part one tells the life in India of young Piscine Molitor Patel, Pi for short, the son of a zoo keeper and a quester, in the manner of someone from a Hermann Hesse novel, after truth. He becomes a Christian, a Muslim and a Hindu, all at once, much to the perplexity of his modern, atheist family and the range of gurus to whom he goes for spiritual succour. This is lightly and deftly told and, while the author clearly wants to plant some seeds in our minds, he nonetheless avoids didacticism, mainly because Pi himself is a pleasant, self-deprecating and hopelessly, unknowingly, naive narrator. Thus, although we know we’re being set up for an examination of spirituality we don’t, as we might in some of the less felicitous parts of Hesse’s oeuvre (the Elder Brother episode in The Glass Bead Game, for example), kick against it.

Pi goes on to study both zoology and theology, a pairing that might give coniption fits to some of the creationists out there but Martel slowly guides us towards the twin-track thematic impulses in the novel, nature and spirit, man and god, man and animal, life and transcendence, reason and belief.

Part one ends abruptly when the Patel family decide to emigrate to Canada. This proves a disastrous decision: their ship is shipwrecked and only Pi survives. Well, Pi, plus a giraffe with a broken leg, a hyena, an orangutan and a 450 pound Bengal tiger. All on the one lifeboat. Though not – nature being red in tooth and claw and, after a few days at sea, extremely hungry – for very long. The hyena quickly sees off the giraffe, then, with a little more difficulty, the orang-utan, before falling in the third round to the majestic tiger. Only beast and boy remain, adrift on the Pacific Ocean with no hope of rescue. What next?

What ensues is simply a masterclass in creative writing. Anyone serious about being a writer must read part two of Life of Pi. It is superb. In particular, study the way Martel manages the pace. The interludes become increasingly dramatic, but they are interspersed with moments of reflection and calm. Think about it. We have a story in which wild animals and a child are adrift on a boat. What happens is inevitable. The animals kill and eat each other. The boy will be next. And yet the reader is still enthralled. To be able to spin that storyline out over more than two hundred pages is masterful. What unfolds, of course, is wholly incredible, but such is Martel’s skill that we are totally drawn into his fantasy. "I will turn miracle into routine. The amazing will be seen every day," Pi tells us, neatly turning himself, like Joseph Knecht in The Glass Bead Game, into a mystic. We believe. We believe it when Pi slowly, very carefully, begins to tame the tiger, Richard Parker. We endure his endless searches for food from the ocean, share his revulsion at raw fish, and turtle blood, and the process of killing itself. We wince at his constipation. We exult in his trapping of precious rain. We feel the heat of the sun, the chafe of fabric on waterlogged skin. Always, we keep a wary eye on the menacing Richard Parker. We share Pi’s wonder at their continued co-existence. With him, we endure every one of the 227 days he is adrift in the Pacific. With him, we fall a little bit in love with Richard Parker.

The magic-realist fabulism of part two could not have worked without the earthy realism of part one. We can believe Pi’s understanding of the tiger’s nature, and his gradual battle for control over it, because in the first section we were treated to an expert analysis of animal and human natures, of battles for dominance, of the interrelationship between man and animal. We know that Pi, son of a zookeeper, would have sufficient knowledge to survive. It makes sense. What could be utterly unbelievable falls neatly within the compass of the fictive dream. It works.

It begins not to work when Pi and Richard Parker land on a mysterious island, peopled by tree-dwelling, continent-hopping meerkats, an island which exhibits an increasingly sinister mien. It is, we discover, not an island at all but a seething mass of carniverous algae. Hmm. The beautifully constructed fictional universe begins to unravel, and it is not immediately evident why Martel has done this. What is his purpose?

There is a strong metafictional element to Life of Pi, of course, and this is where Barack Obama’s analysis is spot on: because this novel is indeed in part about storytelling. It is about realism and magic-realism. James Woods sums it up neatly in his review:
Martel proves, by skilful example, that realism is narrative’s great master, that it schools even its own truants. He reminds us in fact that realism is already magical, an artifice-in-waiting.
Yes, indeed, I think that’s true, but where does the magic island come into it? All realism is blown away, the carefully constructed world is dismantled and replaced by something plastic and fantastically dull (in the literal sense of the phrase). To what end? We’ll come back to that question, but first we need to look a bit deeper at the philosophical basis of the novel.

Where the novel succeeds and fails is in the roles of the respective gurus who guide the questing Pi in his home in India. Here, Martel is treading on familiar territory. Think, for example of Joseph Knecht’s gurus in The Glass Bead Game, the wise and liberal, highly cultured man amongst men, Father Jacobus and the otherwordly mystic, the Elder Brother. Or, in Mann’s The Magic Mountain, young Hans Castorp is torn between the enlightened liberal Settembrini and the proto-fascist Naphta. As with art and science, good and evil, (man and God), we are being told that these gurus represent the polars of the spirit. They offer different approaches to knowledge; they are opposites, but attached. Or, as we might say back home, they are two cheeks of the same arse. And this is true of the gurus in Life of Pi to such an extent that one dialectical pair of them even shares the name of Kumar: one an atheist teacher who shocks and confronts the pious Pi (no coincidence in the name and his nature, of course), and the other a devout Muslim baker whose humility and humanity greatly impress the boy.

The trouble, it seems to me, is that Pi is not sufficiently immersed in their teaching to take on their wisdom (or otherwise). Thus, when we get to the crux of the matter, the yearning which accompanies Pi’s isolation and his loneliness and his growing understanding of the regal animal with which he shares the boat, it does not feel fully realised. What happens instead, as James Woods points out, is that God gradually disappears from Pi’s thoughts in the progress of his passage at sea. Nonetheless, while I think Woods may be right to an extent, I think he may be missing the main point. 227 days adrift on the Pacific might indeed give one pause to ponder the nature of God and reality but, as Florence Stratton reminds us in her excellent review, Pi was also greatly exercised by trying not to be eaten by a hungry Bengal tiger. Brute reality must always intervene. This is the message of a Jacobus as opposed to an ascetic Elder Brother or, in Life of Pi, of the teacher Kumar as opposed to the baker Kumar. There is a place for God, and belief in God, but so too is there a place for action. Pi, for all his pious thoughts (and much to his horror if he were ever to realise it) is precisely an exemplar of the rational approach of Settembrini and teacher Kumar and Father Jacobus. Stratton’s conclusion is that Martel:
is not out to prove the existence of God, but rather to justify a belief in God’s existence. Martel’s position is a post-modernist one, from the perspective of which God’s existence has the same status in relation to truth and reality as Pi’s experience of shipwreck.
She continues:
Life of Pi is organized around a philosophical debate about the modern world’s privileging of reason over imagination, science over religion, materialism over idealism, fact over fiction or story.
I think she may be right. But rather than seeing this as a positive, this is where I start to worry. This is where, from Rousseau onwards into the present day (McCarthy, for example) writers begin to create monsters out of human beings and ascribe to them the source of any number of malaises. For these people, the Enlightenment is the nadir, the moment when mankind lost its connection to mystery and faith and the holy spirit, and instead began to worship itself as its own, immanent god. In this way, humanity is set as a straw man against itself, with exaggerated claims for the malignancy of man or the efficacy of faith. Binary oppositions are created with which to “prove” that mankind has lost its way and is heading into a godless abyss.

Martel, to his credit, does not take us this far. His novel is much more buoyant than this, with a far greater sense of hope, and decency, and a feeling that man may not have travelled all the way into abjection, as our more eccentric philosophers and writers (Eric Voegelin, say) may attest. Nonetheless, he does join the brigade against reason. For all his rationality, Pi is allowed to say, unchallenged:
“Reason is excellent for getting food, clothing and shelter. Reason is the very best tool kit. Nothing beats reason for keeping tigers away. But be excessively reasonable and you risk throwing out the universe with the bathwater”
This is the sort of simplistic nonsense one is accustomed to hearing from televangelists and Hoover Shoats-like corner-street con-preachers. As a philosophical basis on which to hook a novel it is trite. Now perhaps, of course, it is said ironically, and the fact that Pi’s actions do not correspond to his thoughts would certainly bear that out.

But we return to the episode on the carnivorous island. What does it mean? I asked the question earlier, without answering. That is because, as Stratton points out, it cannot be answered except retrospectively, after the second telling of the story of his shipwreck by Pi to the two Japanese investigators which is the crucial element of part three of the novel. Indeed, it is a crucial element of the whole novel. This is where Martel tries to pack his greatest punch, his principal observation about the triumph of reason over faith.

This part, in which two Japanese loss adjustors come to interview the survivor Pi, when he finally reaches land in Mexico, in order to discover the fate of the ship which sank, has echoes of the ending of McCarthy’s Cities of the Plain, or the heretic passage in his The Crossing. In each, we are given a metastory, a story behind the story, a radical retelling of what is going on in the main narrative. And, again, the purpose is metaphysical. Here is the mystery of man, McCarthy and Martel tell us, and here is the mystery of God. Each is the same and each is different. Each speaks of truth and each is false. Wonder, wonder about it all. Well, wonder indeed, but for me, I prefer Erik Satie’s rejoinder to “Wonder about yourself”.

The Japanese investigators simply do not believe Pi’s story – and who can blame them, of course, for it is truly unbelievable. But Pi then tells them another story, this time of a shipwreck without animals but with other human beings – Pi’s mother, an injured sailor and a French cook. This short passage quickly becomes horrific, a story of murder and cannibalism and the search for the meaning of evil. The story is, of course, the same as the story with animals – for the cook read the hyena, for Pi’s mother the orangutan, for the injured sailor the giraffe and so on. Which story do you prefer? Pi asks the two Japanese men. The story with animals, they conclude, and in so doing, in finally preferring what they had previously disbelieved, they find some sense of faith and spirit and adventure and free themselves, these rationalist men, from the curse of reason.

So back to the island. What is it? It is, of course, symbolic. In Stratton’s reading, which I find compelling, she suggests it is allegorically “taking direct aim at consumer capitalism as the most secular and materialist form of human existence.” There is no sense of the individual on the island, only a collective will to consume. The island is a spiritual vacuum, a nothingness, the blankness at the centre of our modernity. Stratton says:
The deconstructive project of Life of Pi is to replace the Enlightenment belief in the power of reason to liberate humanity with a belief in the transforming power of story.
But if this is so, Martel is establishing a false binary. This is the sort of connection made by people like Karen Armstrong, who correctly note the role of myth (which is, after all, the original storytelling) in the creation of religions and religious thought. So far so good, but next these critics try to suggest an opposition between this sense of storytelling and the power of reason. No such opposition exists. The world of reason can embrace, perfectly, the idea of storytelling. It can even accept it as a means of exploring rational ideas: what are fables and folk tales, if not rationalist examinations of the foibles of humanity? There is a place for storytelling and there is a place for reason, but they can also coexist perfectly harmoniously. Those who attempt to decry Enlightenment beliefs by asserting they must, somehow, imprison humanity in some reductive, emotionless shell, or carnivorous island, are ascribing to it something completely false and alien. And this, for me, is the problem with Martel’s island and, by extension, the message of his entire novel. To criticise reason for engendering a lack of belief, and to promote belief as an antidote to reason is simplistic. To blame the Enlightenment for the ills of the world is shallow. To shelter behind the power of storytelling is naive. Man is not, nor does he want to be, an immanent god, but he can still be a transformative power for good. I think Pi Patel believes this. I’m not entirely convinced that Yann Martel does.

Feb 4, 2013

Love: The Great Gatsby

"If love is only a will to possess, it is not love". America in the 1920's was a country where moral values were decaying. Every American had one objective to achieve: success.
Francis Scott Fitzgerald, the author of The Great Gatsby, presents realistic image of American life in the 1920's. His characters, like many people of that period, only care for money; becoming rich is their main objective. As a result, their relationships, no longer based on love, fail.
All of the relationships in the novel are failures because they are not based on love, but on materialism.
One example of a failed relationship in The Great Gatsby is the adulterous affair between Tom Buchanan and Myrtle Wilson. This affair is based on mutual exploitation. Tom uses Myrtle for sex; Myrtle receives gifts and money in return. Tom Buchanan, a resident of East Egg, is "old money", so he looks down on everyone who is not from his class. Thus, he treats Myrtle as if she is trash. Myrtle Wilson, the wife of poor George Wilson, has become disenchanted with her 12 year old marriage of her husband's lack of success. Her desire for a better life is evident when she relates her first meeting with Tom:
"It was on the two little seats facing each other that are always the last ones left on the train. I was going up to New York to see my sister and spend the night. He had on a dress suit and patent leather shoes, and I couldn't keep my eyes off him, but every time he looked at me I had to pretend to be looking at the advertisement over his head. When we came into the station he was next to me, and his white shirt-front pressed against my arm, and so I told him I'd have to call a policeman, but he knew I lied. I was so excited that when I got into a taxi with him I didn't hardly know I wasn't getting into a subway train. All I kept thinking, over and over, was 'You can't live forever; you can't live forever" (Fitzgerald 42).
Myrtle even believes that Tom will leave Daisy and marry her. In reality, Tom does not even see Myrtle as a person but as a sexual object. This is made clean by his degrading treatment of Myrtle at the party, especially when he breaks her nose for having the nerve to mention his wife's name:
" 'Daisy! Daisy! Daisy!' shouted Mrs. Wilson. 'I'll say it whenever I want to! Daisy! Dai - ' Making a short deft movement, Tom Buchanan broke her nose with his open hand" (Fitzgerald 43).
The pathetic nature of their relationship is reinforced when she dies. After a fight with George Wilson, Myrtle runs away towards a golden car that she thinks is Tom's. The golden colour of the car symbolizes money , the wealth that Myrtle so desires. Apparently, the car is driven by Daisy, another symbol of materialism, and what happens has a symbol of significance:
A moment later [Myrtle] rushed out into the dusk, waving her hands and shouting ... The 'death car' as the newspapers called it, didn't stop ... Myrtle Wilson, her life violently extinguished, knelt in the road and mingled her thick dark blood with the dust ... The mouth was wide open and ripped a little at the corners, as though she had choked a little in giving up the tremendous vitality she had stored so long (Fitzgerald 143-44).
The nature of the relationship between Tom and Myrtle is best symbolized by the expensive dog leash Tom had bought for Myrtle's puppy. It reflects the fact that Tom is the master, the one who controls his "pet" with money. As the master, Tom is free to do as he pleases. As the "dog", Myrtle receives gifts for proper behaviour. The unequal status of Tom and Myrtle reflects the failure of their relationship, which, given its adulterous nature, was doomed to fail from the inception.
The Buchanan marriage is also a complete failure. It is the war that separated Daisy and Gatsby, and his absence is one of the reasons she married Tom. However, the most important factor was his money and status. Tom is from a rich family. He can give Daisy everything she wants. The wedding ceremony proved this:
In June [Daisy] married Tom Buchanan of Chicago, with more pomp and circumstance than Louisville ever knew before. He came down with a hundred people in four private cars, and hired a whole floor of the Muhlbach Hotel, and the day before the wedding he gave her a string of pearls valued at three hundred and fifty thousand dollars (Fitzgerald 82).
That is a marriage of convenience -not love- is apparent on several occasions in the novel. For example, while Daisy was giving birth to their only child, "Tom was God knows where" (Fitzgerald 23). Furthermore, Tom's philandering begins only after 3 months of his marriage. A newspaper account of Tom's accident mentions that the chambermaid he was with her broken arm. Of course, Daisy knows Tom ways too well; she even offers him her "little gold pencil" so that he gets the number of a "pretty but common" girl he is interested in at Gatsby's party, although Tom pretends to want to switch tables for another reason. The fact is that their marriage is founded upon wealth and power; that is what keeps them together, and what reveals how barren a marriage it is.
Gatsby is the one who tries to separate Tom and Daisy. It is Gatsby's dream to be reunited with Daisy, to go back to the past, and to marry Daisy. This is his incorruptible dream, as Gatsby tells Nick: "'Can't repeat the past?' [Gatsby] cried incredulously. 'Why of course you can!'" (Fitzgerald 117).
After reuniting with Daisy, Gatsby begins an affair that is made possible because he is extremely rich; Daisy is a materialist that can be lured by money. When they first reunite, Daisy shows little true emotion. It is only when he shows her his huge mansion and expensive possession that Daisy displays strong emotion. For example, as Gatsby shows her his expensive clothes from England; "Suddenly, with a strained sound, Daisy bent her head into the shirts and began to cry stormily" (Fitzgerald 99).
When the affair between Gatsby and Daisy is discovered, Tom and Gatsby confront each other over Daisy. In this crucial event, Daisy reveals her true view of her affair with Gatsby - that it was simply a way of filling in her empty days, an entertainment. It is also revenge for Tom's many adulterous affairs. Deep in her heart, she is not determined:" 'Oh, you want too much!' [Daisy] cried to Gatsby. 'I love you now - isn't that enough? I can't help what's past.' She began to sob helplessly. 'I did love him once - but I loved you too'" (Fitzgerald 139).
Having betrayed Gatsby twice already, Daisy now betrays him for the final time - unwilling to face the consequence of Myrtle's death, Daisy and Tom conspire to frame Gatsby for the accident. Gatsby is then killed by George Wilson, as Tom has led him to believe that Gatsby is both Myrtle's lover and killer.
In the end, this relationship fails because Daisy values nothing but materialism; she does not even send a flower to Gatsby's fueral.
Love is essential in a relationship. However, materialism is essential of the relationship presented in The Great Gatsby. Those relationships are failures because they are founded on the physical rather than the spiritual. Fitzgerald shows that any relationships based on materialism will fail in the end.

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...

All Posts

A Fine Balance A House for Mr. Biswas Absurd Drama Achebe Across the Black Waters Addison Adiga African Ages Albee Alberuni Ambedkar American Amrita Pritam Anand Anatomy of Criticism Anglo Norman Anglo Saxon Aristotle Ariyar Arnold Ars Poetica Auden Augustan Aurobindo Ghosh Backett Bacon Badiou Bardsley Barthes Baudelaire Beckeley Bejnamin Belinda Webb Bellow Beowulf Bhabha Bharatmuni Bhatnagar Bijay Kant Dubey Blake Bloomsbury Book Bookchin Booker Prize bowen Braine British Brooks Browne Browning Buck Burke CA Duffy Camus Canada Chaos Characters Charlotte Bronte Chaucer Chaucer Age China Chomsky Coetzee Coleridge Conard Contact Cornelia Sorabji Critical Essays Critics and Books Cultural Materialism Culture Dalit Lliterature Daruwalla Darwin Dattani Death of the Author Deconstruction Deridda Derrida Desai Desani Dickens Dilip Chitre Doctorow Donne Dostoevsky Dryden Durkheim EB Browning Ecology Edmund Wilson Eliot Elizabethan Ellison Emerson Emile Emily Bronte English Epitaph essats Essays Esslin Ethics Eugene Ionesco Existentialism Ezekiel Faiz Fanon Farrel Faulkner Feminism Feminist Criticism in the Wilderness Ferber Fitzgerald Foregrounding Formalist Approach Forster Foucault Frankfurt School French Freud Frost Frye Fyre Gandhi Gender German Germany Ghosh Gilbert Adair Golding Gordimer Greek Gulliver’s Travels Gunjar Halliday Hard Times Hardy Harindranath Chattopadhyaya Hawthorne Hemingway Heyse Hindi Literature Historical Materialism History Homer Horace Hunt Huxley Ibsen In Memoriam India Indian. Gadar Indra Sinha Interview Ireland Irish Jack London Jane Eyre Japan JM Synge Johnson Joyce Joyce on Criticism Jumpa Lahiri Jussawalla Kafka Kalam Kalidasa Kamla Das Karnard Keats Kipling Langston Hughes Language Language of Paradox Larkin Le Clezio Lenin Lessing Levine Life of PI literary Criticism Luckas Lucretius Lyrical Ballads Macaulay Magazines Mahapatra Mahima Nanda Malory Mandeville Manto Manusmrti Mao Marlowe Martel Martin Amis Marx Marxism Mary Shelley Maugham McCarry Medi Media Miller Milton Moby Dick Modern Mona Loy Morrison Movies Mulk Raj Anand Mytth of Sisyphus Nabokov Nahal Naidu Naipaul Narayan Natyashastra Neo-Liberalism NET New Criticism new historicism News Nietzsche Nikita Lalwani Nissim Ezekiel Niyati Pathak Niyati Pathank Nobel Prize O Henry Of Studies Okara Ondaatje Orientalism Orwell Pakistan Pamela Paradise Lost Pater Pinter Poems Poetics Poets Pope Post Feminism Post Modern Post Structuralism post-Colonialism Poststructuralism Preface to Shakespeare Present Prize Psycho Analysis Psychology and Form Publish Pulitzer Prize Puritan PWA Radio Ramayana Rape of the Lock Renaissance Restoration Revival Richardson Rime of Ancient Mariner RL Stevenson Rohinton Mistry Romantic Roth Rousseau Rushdie Russia Russian Formalism Sartre Sashi Despandey Satan Sati Savitri Seamus Heaney’ Shakespeare Shaw Shelley Shiv K.Kumar Showalter Sibte Hasan Slavery Slow Man Socialism Spender Spenser Sri Lanka Stage of Development Steinbeck Stories Subaltern Sufis Surrealism Swift Tagore Tamil Literature Ted Hughes Tennyson Tennyson. Victorian Terms Tess of the D’Urbervilles The March The Metamorphsis The Order of Discourse The Outsider The Playboy of the Western World The Politics The Satanic Verses The Scarlet Letter The Transitional Poets The Waste Land The Work of Art In The Age of Mechanical Reproduction The Wuthering Heights Theatre of Absurd Theory Theory of Criticism Theory of Evolution Theory of Literature Thomas McEvilley Thoreau To the Lighthouse Tolstoy Touchstone Method Tughlaq Tulsi Badrinath Twain Two Uses of Language UGC-NET Ulysses Untouchable Urdu Victorian Vijay Tendulkar Vikram Seth Vivekananda Voltaire Voyage To Modernity Walter Tevis Webster Wellek West Indies Wharton Williams WJ Long Woolfe Wordsworth World Wars Writers WW-I WW-II Wycliff Xingjian Yeats Zadie Smith Zaheer Zizek Zoe Haller