Monday, October 31, 2011

A note on Liberalism Via Alexander Meiklejohn and Lionel Trilling

Here is a nice description of the Liberal both believing and doubting by Alexander Meiklejohn, which I have been quoting for years from his book Education Between Two Worlds and which provides a striking contrast to what might be called the Conservative cast of mind shown in the argument from caution (unintended consequences)and in the argument from tradition, both Burke's:

"...Liberalism both believes and doubts, and “…indicates a pattern of culture which criticizes itself... It has customs and standards of behaviour. But it also has...the attitude of...questioning its own dominant beliefs and standards... The liberal both believes and doubts...and... if an individual or a group will hold fast both to custom and intelligence, then its experience will inevitably be paradoxical and divided against itself. The being who seeks intelligence is a divided personality.”

I lean towards this more mind-based notion of Liberalism. For its content has shifted from its origins as a laissez faire doctrine more in common with libertarian ideas of freedom from government and economic freedom to, over the 20th century, more "progressive" ideas about the virtue of government, the need to regulate commerce and the felt obligation to provide a citizenry with a decent social safety net, and thus having more in common with Democratic Socialism.

I believe in the social safety net as a hallmark of a just society and in that sense agree with it as a specific content of political Liberalism as we understand it today, apart from it as a habit of mind, as described by Meiklejohn. And if that's what's meant by Liberalism's morality being located in its search for justice then I agree. For Meiklejohn argued that the doctinal legacy of human fellowship from a philosophically outmoded Christianity is the proper understanding of the moral foundation for the political order promised by democracy.

In these senses, "generosity" captures the open mindedness of both believing and doubting and the humanity evident in a social safety net and a commitment to helping the poorest amongst us. The content and boundaries of the net and of the helping hand are always a matter of debate but the underlying commitent is there regardless.

Back to Liberalism's habit of mind: Trilling himself says, in line with Liberalism holding fast to belief and doubt, his misson is "putting under some degree of pressure the liberal ideas and assumptions of the present time" and urges the necessity of the "essential imagination of variousness and possibility, which implies the awareness of complexity and difficulty."

Sunday, October 30, 2011

A Note on Trilling's Essay on Wordworth's Immortality Ode

I just finished reading Trilling's essay on the Wordsworth's Immortality Ode.

Apparently this is the only close reading of a poem he ever published. I thought it excellent, making a good case for the poem not being about Wordsworth's lamenting his lost powers of poetry. It's easy to follow the argument because Trilling appends the text of his poem to his essay. I find his essays much better when he focuses on specific works of literature rather than trying to pursue a systematic account of some general idea such as in his essay On The Meaning of a Literary Idea, which I thought weak.

And, I finally understand better, not fully perhaps, what Trilling means by moral realism. As explained by Adam Kirsch, whose book Why Trilling Matters, I'm reading, it's "...a realism that is 'not the awareness of morality itself but of the contradictions, paradoxes, and dangers of living the moral life,' ” somewhat, says Kirsch, in the spirit of Berlin's idea of liberalism as necessarily imperfect and conflicted due to the inevitable clash of conflicting moral principles in specifc cases

Friday, October 28, 2011

The Iraq War Was a Win: Michael J. Totten

TNR/October 28, 2011

President Barack Obama has announced that nearly all American soldiers will be home from Iraq by the end of the year. Despite the fact that Iran, as the Middle East’s most serious would-be hegemon, will benefit more than any other country from our regional drawdown, the American and Iraqi governments wish to go their own separate ways.

The president has a campaign promise to keep. Most Americans are tired of sending their money, their sons, and even their daughters to Iraq, and most who haven’t spend money or blood are tired of hearing about it. The Iraqis have been trying to elbow us out for years and hope to regain a measure of sovereignty and respect when we’re finally gone.

It’s risky. In a worst-case scenario, Washington could end up evacuating its embassy a few years from now as we did in Saigon nearly four decades ago. But there’s a big difference between withdrawing from Iraq in 2011 and withdrawing from South Vietnam in 1973: The war in Iraq is over.
THAT’S NOT TO SAY that Iraq is a model of stability. “Iran is laying low right now and is riding us out,” U.S. Army sergeant Nick Franklin told me in Baghdad two years ago. “When we pull out, though, and they know we're almost out, it will be game on here in Iraq.”

By aiding and abetting violent Shia militias and terrorist organizations, Iran has indeed been doing its worst to export its sectarian grievances and repressive political system to Iraq ever since coalition forces chased Saddam Hussein out of his palaces. Tehran is still striving for dominance—not only in Iraq, but everywhere else in the region, as well—and that job will surely be easier without the United States in the way.

The Obama administration knows this perfectly well. “To countries in the region,” Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said earlier this week in Tajikistan, “especially Iraq’s neighbors, we want to emphasize that America will stand with our allies and friends, including Iraq, in defense of our common security and interests.”

Obviously she was referring to Iraq’s Iranian neighbor. No one worries that Jordan will nefariously interfere in Iraq any time soon. But Clinton’s assurances are less credible given the imminence of America’s withdrawal. Promoting our interests in Iraq will be a lot harder when our closest military forces are in Kuwait rather than Baghdad.

Even so, Iran’s Islamic Republic regime won’t benefit nearly as much from our withdrawal today as it would have five years ago. Iraq was an absolute disaster in 2006. Before General David Petraeus “surged” thousands of additional counterinsurgency troops to the country, a hurricane of car- and suicide-bombers turned Iraq into the most terrorized place on the face of the earth.

Abu Musab al-Zarqawi’s Al Qaeda in Iraq lorded over Ramadi, the capital of Anbar Province, and points beyond. Moqtada al Sadr’s radical Shia Mahdi Army militia had its own Hezbollah-style state-within-a-state with its capital in Sadr City, a vast slum in Baghdad that’s home to millions of people.

If the United States had withdrawn its forces then, as many commentators and policymakers demanded, the Iraqi government almost certainly would have disintegrated. Iraq might not even exist as a state anymore.

Al Qaeda could have claimed it beat the United States Marine Corps in a shooting war—a feat far more impressive for the purposes of propaganda than even the killing of thousands of civilians in New York and Washington. Iran, meanwhile, could have successfully replicated the quasi-imperial foreign policy it all but perfected in Lebanon where it acquired its own private army—Hezbollah—during a chaotic time of sectarian civil war and foreign occupation.

Iraq is a completely different country today. Al Qaeda in Iraq scarcely even exists anymore. No militia, either Sunni or Shia, controls territory or has its own “capital” anywhere.

Baghdad’s government is not going to fall, no matter how much Tehran tries to undermine it. No one will be able to claim even implausibly that Americans were driven out of Iraq under fire. Nor can anyone plausibly say the United States lost. The enemies of the United States and Iraq’s elected government have either been vanquished, forced to give up the gun, or driven into the shadows.

“In all societies there is an acceptable level of violence,” U.S. Army captain A.J. Boyes said to me in Sadr City in 2009, suggesting that Iraq was reaching that point. Baghdad was no longer the war zone it used to be, and it’s even less violent now that it was then.

No society in the world can be completely free of violence, but the “acceptable” level, given factors like history and political grievance, is higher in some countries than in others. It’s higher in the United States than it is in Japan. It’s higher in Mexico than it is in the United States. And it’s higher in Iraq than it is in Mexico. But Iraq today is less violent than Mexico, one of the most heavily touristed countries in the world.

That’s not to say there are no reasons to stay. “If there is one constant of American military history,” Max Boot wrote in Commentary, “it is that the longer our troops stay in a country the better the prospects of a successful outcome. Think of Germany, Italy, Japan or South Korea. Conversely when U.S. troops rush for the exits hard-won wartime gains can quickly evaporate. Think of the post-Civil War South, post-World War I Germany, post-1933 (and post-1995) Haiti, post-1972 Vietnam, or, more recently, post-1983 Lebanon and post-1993 Somalia.”

Boot is right about that. President Obama’s decision to withdraw may well end badly. But if it does turn out to be a mistake, it will be a much smaller mistake than a pre-surge withdrawal would have been. We are no longer staring down the possibility of a military or grand strategic defeat on the battlefield.

Iraq just isn’t as dangerous anymore, not to itself and not to others. If Iran tries to destabilize it with terror militias again, Iraq will fight back. And the Iraqis know how to fight back effectively now after so many years of American training. If Iran actually tries to invade with conventional forces—a spectacularly unlikely event, but one never knows in that part of the world—odds are excellent that the American military would respond to the breach of international law and sovereignty by again joining the fight alongside the Iraqi military.

Iraq has been gearing up to stand on its own for years. President Obama merely decided the time would come sooner rather than later. A Republican president would have eventually made the same decision even if it might have taken a little bit longer. Few Americans are in the mood for any more nation-building or babysitting. Iraqis, for their part, are tired of being built-up and babysat by Americans.

Some kind of withdrawal and disengagement has been a long time coming for those reasons alone. A substantial number of American officials were persuaded that sticking around in Iraq to prevent a catastrophe was probably wise as long as we’d leave when a howling abyss no longer yawned at everyone’s feet. For better or for worse, that time has arrived.

Michael J. Totten is a contributing editor at City Journal and author of
In the Wake of the Surge and The Road to Fatima Gate.


There is an essential illogic in Totten's argument that defies his conclusion that, as the tease would have it, "Did We Lose in Iraq? No, and Here’s Why". The illogic is that the pivot of his argument is that the surge rescued a country disintegrating into chaos, helped rid it of al Qaeda and left it somewhat sovereign and somehwat civilly in tact. Totten in advancing his argument compares what would have happened if the U.S. left at the apex of Iraqi chaos rather than now and rather than implementing the surge.

That comparison drives his argument, which ends up with some comentary on the risks of not staying longer. The illogic is the complete begging of the question: should America have invaded it in the first place, at a time when Hussein was a terrible actor, but there were no wmds--the primary rationale for going to war--and there was no al Qaeda presence to speak of.

Iraq is better off now than it was under Hussein's reign of terror, but at what cost: 4500 Americans dead, thousands wounded and thousands amongst those thousands wounded irreparably, 100,000(?) Iraqis dead and wounded, motly civilians and a cost in the neighbourhood of a trillion dollars.

Measure those costs against that benefit, the conclusion seems obvious to me.

Debate those costs against those benefits if you want to, but even stipulating that it's debatable doesn't obviate the shoddiness of Totten's reasoning and arguments.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Some Contrarian Thoughts on The Brothers Karamazov Fresh From Just Having Finished It

Here's the (one) thing: for us in these more or less thoroughly secular/atheistic times, for anyone with a bit of intellectual sophistication, the idea that without God as a moral source all is moral anarchy, or, put another way, there is no morality, seems altogether quaint and anachronistic, a sophomoric notion that bright kids in high school might debate. In Shakespeare no such naive questions form the themes of any of his plays, I'd be inclined to argue.

So I resist intuitively anything so simple minded as being the metaphysics of an artist of such overpowering talent, intellect, psychological and representational penetration as Dostoyevsky. But there it is, seemingly.

I was so moved by the last Chapter, where the simplicity of the ideas in Alyosha's final speech make so much thematic sense to me within the context of the fiction, that, maybe just by personal predeliction, I struggle against a reading of the novel rooting that wisdom in the necessity of faith. But struggle as I might, I have thus far come up pretty empty.

But not altogether so.

One possible support I can look to, as I now see things, is that Ivan, whose cynicism is an experiment in finding meaning, and Smerdyakov, his intellectual disciple but pathologically malign and very smart, albeit poisonsously so, both run feelingly and experientially into the limits of moral anarchy without God by confronting the overall impact of Smerdyakov's murder of Fyodor in their three final conversations, and especially the last one. Those conversations raise and amplify the moral meaning of the murder in their consciousnesses.

They don't need, don't have, faith at the moment of their realization, but their guilt, Smerdyakov's legal guilt, and Ivan's spiritual or moral guilt--that latter needing some parsing, now's not the time--drives the first to suicide and tips Ivan over into physiological (brain fever leading to a coma) and mental breakdown. (What the future holds for Ivan, we of course don't know.)

So their realization suggests a ground for seeing morality within the novel not needing to be based on faith. So do the various acts of goodness, love forgiveness and reconcilation--such as the final one between Dmitri and Katerina and the partial one, still in the works, so to speak, between Katerina and Grushenka. So does the most powerful and beautiful relationship in the entire novel, between Ilyusha and his father. Familiality, filiality and literal brotherliness, for three integrally related instances, are sources for natural, intuitive and from-the-ground-up human bonds not needing God or faith for their formation.

None of any of these instances, arguably, need faith at their base and thus may speak to an ethic of compassion, pity, love and fellow feeling based on common humanity in a tragic world, a vale of tears marked in part by the reality of unspeakable evil, with religion being one mode of the representation of, struggle with, that overarching compexity and moral range in existence.

(Mark Lilla has argued that from about Rousseau on religious thinkers like Hegel and others saw God and religion as man made but an ideal worth socially incorporating with even a national de jure church and compulsory attendance and belief because Christianity represents the highest conception man has of himself. Lilla suggests that these ideas are the ferment out of which Reform Judaism came. But all this is a, possibly relevant, aside.)

I'd have to reread Alyosha's last speech but I don't recall the necessity of faith as its anchor, even though he's a believer and a moral centre of the novel.

One final thought: for me it's guff that we're responsible for the sins of others even without our complicity in those sins. I think Father Zossima, another moral centre in the novel, says we are. I have some thoughts about how that idea works in The Brothers Karamazov without being guff.

That at another time perhaps.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Some Questions on The Brothers Karamazov

Questions I'm posing to myself about The Brothers Karamazov include whether within the novel's terms moral life, good works and goodness itself are possible without religious faith, whether it's a thematic imperative that all are responsible for the sins of others, whether moastic life is idealized and whether Smerdyakov could have been forgiven and redeemed, despite his suicide.

Another question is whether Dostoyevsky really means to say that without God all is permissible, i.e. that that's how essential and fundamental religious belief is to his view of the world.

The Brothers Karamazov as a Novel of the 1860's

Charles A. Moser, The George Washington University

.....The fact is, though, that the novel also contains a considerable number of pre-time-of-action anachronisms, at least enough to justify our treating The Brothers Karamazov as more of a novel of the 1860's than it might appear at first glance.

For example Dmitry's mother, Adelaida Miusova, who could not have given birth to him later than 1840, is pictured very much as an emancipated woman of the 1860's avant la lettre: she wished, we learn, "to display her feminine independence, to oppose social conventions as well as the despotism of her relations and family" (XIV:8) in deciding to marry Fedor Karamazov.

Then, when she realized what a scoundrel Fedor was, she abandoned both him and her three-year-old son to run away with a "seminarian and teacher who was perishing of poverty" (XIV:9), very much in the tradition of the 1860's. Adelaide's cousin Petr is depicted only a little less anachronistically as a man who has adopted an intellectually fashionable anticlericalism which has moved him to engage in litigation with a monastery located near his estate (XIV: 10-11).

Smerdyakov's biography provides us with very clear anachronistic details. At the age of 12, we read, that is, in 1854, he placed his mentor Grigory in what he considered an untenable position during his Bible lessons, when he asked: "God created the light [svet] on the first day, but the sun, the moon and the stars on the fourth day. So then where did the light come from on the first day?" Grigory is so incensed by this that he strikes him on the cheek, and soon thereafter his epileptic seizures commence (XIV:114).

This entire scene is a cliche of the antinihilist literature of the 1860's, and in general Smerdyakov is a standard nihilist of the 1860's even though his intellectual formation had to occur in the 1850's, at least if one is to hold Dostoevsky to a chronological standard. But that is precisely the point. The Brothers Karamazov is a novel formally set in the 1860's which dislocates the general atmosphere of the 1870's onto the 1860's and the atmosphere of the 1860's onto the 1850's and the 1840's. Chronology is so telescoped and intermixed in the novel that we simply cannot hold the author to any significant chronological accountability.

It is my contention that The Brothers Karamazov may usefully be regarded, among other things, as a novel of the 1860's, and more specifically as a belated antinihilist novel of a peculiar sort, a summing up of Dostoevsky's response to the literary current which began with Turgenev's Fathers and Sons in 1862 and which had been effectively stoppered by The Possessed in 1871-72.

When he sat down to write The Brothers Karamazov, Dostoevsky believed that the intellectual momentum had clearly swung away from the radicalism of the 1860's, that he had contributed considerably to this desirable development through his own writings, and that with this novel, as he wrote in a letter of May 1879, he could complete what he called "the rout of anarchism." That rout had to be accomplished on the religious plane, through the refutation of Ivan's arguments by Father Zossima and Alesha.

Indeed, one may view Dostoevsky's four great novels as a single enormous discussion of the central religious and ethical questions which the men of the 1860's had brought to the fore. In Crime and Punishment Dostoevsky demonstrated that an ethic could not be based upon mathematics (the life of one old pawnbroker to ameliorate the lives of a hundred others); in The Idiot he proved, at least in my interpretation,(4) that an ethic could not be founded upon esthetics; and in The Possessed he showed that the ethical could not be equated with that which promoted the purposes of a political revolution.

Thus in The Brothers Karamazov by a process of elimination Dostoevsky arrived at the conclusion that the only foundation for a true ethic must be revelation, a belief in God and immortality. But he also wished to demonstrate this positively, through the discourses of the great religious figures in the novel.

The Brothers Karamazov contains many echoes of the literature of the 1860's. At one point Madame Khokhlakova quotes Bazarov, when she comments that she had always believed there would be nothing after death, that "'a thistle would sprout on my grave', as a certain author once put it" (XIV:52). Two further points are worth noting in this connection.

First, in 1876, at the very time he began creating The Brothers Karamazov in his mind, Dostoevsky thought briefly of writing a novel with exactly the same title as Turgenev's (Ottsy i deti), although the book's content apparently would have been quite different. (5) And second, Maxim Antonovich, the radical critic whose most famous single piece of literary criticism was probably his intemperate attack of 1862 on Fathers and Sons, devoted his literary swan-song to a long review of 1881 denouncing The Brothers Karamazov as a "mystic-ascetic novel."(6)

Chernyshevsky's What Is To Be Done?, the greatest single influence on the radical generation of the 1860's, is the source of several echoes in The Brothers Karamazov. Thus the young socialist Kolya Krasotkin tells Alesha that he is an "egotist", i.e. an adherent of the doctrine of enlightened egotism which Chernyshevsky elaborated in his novel (XIV:483); and toward the end of The Brothers Karamazov Dmitry speaks to Alesha of going off to America with Grusha for three years or so in order to learn English and then return as Americans, much as Lopukhov does in What Is To Be Done? (XV:186).

The Brothers Karamazov also contains a running polemic with Dostoevsky's great ideological opponent of the 1860's, Mikhail Saltykov-Shchedrin. At one point the gushing Madame Khokhlakova talks of Shchedrin as her mentor in the matter of feminine emancipation: she had recently, she says, dispatched
to him a brief note with the text: "I embrace and kiss you, my writer, on behalf of contemporary womankind, keep it up," and signed it: "a mother." (XIV:350). Here Dostoevsky twits Saltykov by asserting that his most ardent followers are flighty, brainless females.

At another point later in the novel Dostoevsky distorted some of Saltykov's writings of 1875 through paraphrase (XV:78). Saltykov, incidentally, followed these details quite closely, and was quick to reply to his old opponent. Such muted polemics were not the most important part of the novel, of course, although they are strongly reminiscent of the 1860's.

As in Dostoevsky's earlier and more overtly antinihilist novels, the characters of The Brothers Karamazov are divided into those who exist on a more superficial, political level, and those who embody more profoundly metaphysical problems. In Crime and Punishment Lebezyatnikov serves as an example of the first category, Raskolnikov and Svidrigaylov of the second. In The Idiot the first category is represented by Burdovsky and the young radicals gathered about him. In The Possessed Petr Verkhovensky is a very well-developed example of the first grouping, while Stavrogin is a most powerful example of the second.

In The Brothers Karamazov we find an entire constellation of figures who fall into the first category. Adelaida Miusova and then Madame Khokhlakova are samples of the scatterbrained emancipated female; Petr Miusov is the fashionable anti-clerical activist; Smerdyakov has grown up as a committed nihilist, and a dangerous one as well, for he is capable not just of murder but of parricide; and the divinity student Rakitin spreads his evil intellectual influence throughout the novel, all the way down to Kolya Krasotkin, who admires Rakitin as his teacher and openly declares his socialist convictions.

And then, in the second category, there is the great metaphysical figure of Ivan Karamazov. Ivan not only - in his "Legend of the Grand Inquisitor" - recasts Shigalev's doctrines on the dominion of the enlightened few over the innumerable herd in religious terms, but he and Alesha also grapple with the central religious question of Dostoevsky's world. As the narrator writes of Alesha in a crucial passage:

...No sooner had he, after taking serious thought, come to the astounding conviction that immortality and God exist, than he immediately, naturally, said to himself: 'I wish to live for immortality, and accept no halfway compromises.' He acted just the same way as he would have, had he decided that God and immortality do not exist, in which case he would immediately have become an atheist and a socialist (for socialism is not merely a matter of the labor question... but is first and foremost a problem of atheism, a problem of the contemporary incarnation of atheism, a question of the Tower of Babel which is being built without God not in order to reach Heaven from Earth, but in order to bring Heaven down to Earth). (XIV:25)...

Similarly, later in the novel this argument is extended to the conclusion that if a person decides that God and immortality do not exist, he is obliged to invert his understanding of the moral law entirely and commit acts which would be considered criminal under the old ethical code (XIV:65).

Thus between Ivan on the one hand and Alesha and Father Zossima on the other are established the fundamental dichotomies: between acceptance of the world as it is (Father Zossima urges his followers to consider the beauty of the natural world and comprehend that "life is paradise" [XIV:272]), or its rejection; between belief in God and immortality as the foundation of the traditional ethical code, and atheism, with the inevitable inversion of the established ethical creed which flows from the conviction that God does not exist.

A certain number of relatively superficial themes characteristic of the antinihilist novel of the 1860's occur in The Brothers Karamazov, although they do not occupy an especially prominent place. One such topic, as we have already seen, is that of feminine emancipation, brought to the fore especially through Madame Khokhlakova, and also satirized in such passages as that about the three women:

...Three ladies are sitting there, sir, one feebleminded without any legs, another hunchbacked without any legs, still another with legs but even overintelligent, a student taking special courses who's always trying to get away to St. Petersburg to search for the rights of Russian women there on the banks of the Neva. (XIV:186)...

A second important antinihilist theme is the radical negation of literature, art and esthetics, with Pushkin as the central target of abuse (the dedication of the Pushkin monument in Moscow in 1880 could be interpreted as an explicit rejection by Russian society of the radical view of him: as one character says disgustedly, "they want to put up a monument to your Pushkin for his women's feet" [XV:17]). Thus Smerdyakov declares sharply that "poetry is rubbish." "Who on earth speaks in rhyme?" he goes on to ask. "And if we did all start talking in rhyme, say by order of the authorities, would we get very much said?" (XIV:204).

In Dmitry's long conversation with Alesha where he speaks of Rakitin's influence on his thinking, Dostoevsky depicts the radical contempt for poetry with biting sarcasm. According to Dmitry, Rakitin had taken advantage of Madame Khokhlakova's money to begin writing verses for the first time: "And anyway, Rakitin says, I wrote better than that Pushkin of yours, because I managed to cram so much civic melancholy into a clownish verse" (XV:29).

This remark is followed by an anti-parody of sorts, or a parody on the parodies of Pushkinian works which such satirical poets of the 1860's as Dmitry Minaev used to produce. Entitled "On the Healing of my Object's Injured Leg", it deals with the subject of Pushkin's weakness for women's feet, and illustrates, incidentally, an intertwining of Pushkin's fixation on women's feet and Dostoevsky's fascination with feminine lameness.

Still another antinihilist theme of the 1860's to be found in The Brothers Karamazov is the belief in rationalism, especially rationalism organized as natural science. That true follower of Dmitry Pisarev, Kolya Krasotkin, scornfully dismisses history as "the study of a series of human stupidities, nothing more. I respect only mathematics and natural sciences" (XIV:497).

In one of his conversations with Alesha Ivan rejects the notion of non-Euclidian geometry (XIV:215), much as Chernyshevsky did in real life, and that quite furiously, on the ground that Euclidian geometry is the foundation of a rational explanation of the physical world as it exists, and that it is totally impermissible to toy with the axioms of mathematics or geometry.

Early in the book Father Paisy comments to Alesha that modern science has sought to undo religion for quite some time, but without success on the whole (XIV:155-56). Still, as frequently occurred in the antinihilist novel of the 1860's, propaganda for natural science can have a powerful effect on individuals who are not especially intelligent.

In The Brothers Karamazov that happens to be Dmitry, who for a time succumbs badly to Rakitin's malign influence. He tells Alesha that he now knows there are various "nerves" in the brain with "little tails" which give rise to images in the mind, consciousness, so that the mind is merely a matter of "chemistry". "Rakitin was explaining all this to me yesterday, brother", Dmitry says, "and it was just like a revelation. This science is magnificent, Alesha! And then the new man will appear, I understand that now... But still I feel sorry for God", Dmitry adds, because, as he realizes, "Rakitin hates God" (XV:28-29).

Extreme hostility toward any manifestation of the supernatural was an integral part of the radical worldview which Dmitry has so naively absorbed.

All these themes, however, though they demonstrate certain superficial links between The Brothers Karamazov and the anti-radical novel of the 1860's, do not go to the book's deepest level, formed of an interweaving of the problem of the family, blood relationships between parents and children, and the question of crime - in this instance parricide - and violations of the accepted ethical code.

Radicals in the nineteenth century and since have instinctively recognized the family as a major obstacle to the implementation of their doctrines. When Kolya Krasotkin is asked what he means by declaring himself a socialist, he defines socialism as follows: "This is if everyone is equal, everybody has nothing but common property, there are no marriages, and religion and all the laws are just the way anyone wants them" (XIV:473. Italics added.)

In The Possessed the girl student keeps asking about the origin of the family, to which Stavrogin responds that it might be improper to provide too detailed a reply (X:306);and in The Brothers Karamazov old Karamazov comments to Alesha that "in our fashionable time nowadays people reject fathers and mothers as a prejudice" (XIV:158).

Dostoevsky very brilliantly grasped the crucial hostility of the radical mind to the institution of the family and the idea of blood relationships, and therefore he defended the family at its weakest point in making of his last novel a version of Fathers and Sons which dealt with the relationships between generations on a far deeper level than Turgenev ever reached.

The Karamazov family has a series of mothers, and a father who has not been able to maintain his marriages, who is on the worst of terms with his sons, who is little more than a mere biological progenitor of his children. Into this family which is metaphysically on the very edge of existence Dostoevsky thrusts the issue of parricide in its most extreme form.

The actual murderer, of course, is the son closest to the "nihilist" of the antinihilist literature, but it is the technically innocent Dmitry who is brought to trial. We are told that the fashionable ladies in attendance at the trial are quite certain of his guilt, but at the same time down to the last moment expect him to be acquitted "out of humane feeling, from the new ideas and new feelings which have such currency now, etc." (XV:95).

But in fact the jury finds Dmitry guilty, and he, in accordance with the Christian conception of guilt, accepts his punishment on the grounds that he did wish for his father's death even if he did not actually murder him. Dostoevsky thus shows the absolute dichotomy at the most fundamental level between the radical view of morality derived from atheistic socialism, which holds that it can be quite acceptable even to kill one's own father, and the traditional, religiously grounded ethic, which maintains that one deserves punishment even for seriously wishing harm to another, regardless of whether one has committed some overt act.

In The Brothers Karamazov, then, Dostoevsky goes back over much of the same ground that he had covered in his earlier novels - particularly in Crime and Punishment and The Possessed - in order to make his final artistic statement on the centrality of religious belief to a proper system of ethics. Though with scant regard for chronology, he recapitulates at a higher level the arguments of the 1860's in this novel which he explicitly sets in that decade, and through which he hoped to have the final word in that discussion.

And in my view The Brothers Karamazov did indeed terminate that great philosophical and literary argument which by then had continued for some twenty years.

See Charles A. Moser, "Stepan Trofimovi─Ź Verxovenskij and the Esthetics of His Time", Slavic and East European Journal, vol. 29, no. 2 (Summer 1985), p. 158.
All volume and page citations given within the text are to Fedor Dostoevsky, Polnoe sobranie sochinenii (Leningrad: Nauka, 1972).
Victor Terras, A Karamazov Companion: Commentary on the Genesis, Language, and Style of Dostoevsky's Novel (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1981), p. 63.
Charles A. Moser, "Nihilism, Aesthetics and The Idiot", Russian Literature, vol. 11 (1982), pp. 377-88.
Carl R. Proffer, ed., The Unpublished Dostoevsky: Diaries and Notebooks, 1860-81 (Ann Arbor: Ardis, 1975). II. 149

Thematic Analysis of the Brothers Karamazov

By Anonymous:

The conflict between faith and doubt

This is the central philosophical conflict in the novel, and is embodied in the characters of Zosima and Alyosha (faith), and Ivan and Fyodor Pavlovich (doubt). The conflict is a consequence of free will, in that it arises from the fact that man is free to believe in God or not.

Dostoevsky shows that faith and doubt give rise to very different types of behavior. Zosima and Alyosha's love of God overflows into love of mankind. They practice active love, whereby their main concern is to love, forgive and refrain from judging their fellow man, and to alleviate his suffering where possible.

Ivan, relying on logic, doubts the existence of God and the immortality of the soul. He thinks that the only reason why people are good is fear of the consequences of doing wrong in the afterlife. Hence, because he rejects God, he also rejects the moral categories of good and evil and preaches the message that "everything is permitted."

However, Ivan does not really believe what he preaches: he is a deeply moral person and is disgusted by those people who live out the doctrine that "everything is permitted," notably Fyodor Pavlovich and Smerdyakov. Thus there is division in Ivan's soul. His lack of faith in God spills over into a lack of faith in himself and his fellow human beings. This in turn leads to a cold attitude and an inability to recognize and accept love when it offers itself (for example, from Alyosha and Katerina).

Both Alyosha and Ivan find their viewpoints challenged, and both face a crisis of soul. Alyosha's occurs when Zosima dies and his body corrupts quickly, leading to widespread doubts about his holiness. Alyosha is briefly plunged into despair, but recovers when he meets Grushenka and unexpectedly feels a wave of love and trust pass between them.

Ivan's crisis occurs when he witnesses the logical conclusion of his doctrine of "everything is permitted": Smerdyakov's murder of Fyodor Pavlovich. Ivan realizes that he is partly responsible for the murder. This is his first experience of the truth of Zosima's teaching that each person is responsible for everyone else's sins. In the men of faith, Zosima and Alyosha, this knowledge of connectedness prompts love and forgiveness towards their fellow man.

The doubting Ivan, however, lacks any sustaining faith in, or love for, God or man. His sudden realization of his connectedness with the murderer Smerdyakov overwhelms him with guilt and despair. The intellect on which he has relied deserts him and he begins to go insane. Ivan's collapse (along with the appalling fates of Fyodor Pavlovich and Smerdyakov) is Dostoevsky's indictment of the philosophy of doubt, which, he suggests, ends in chaos and suffering.

It is significant that at the novel's close, the chief hope of Ivan's recovery and redemption lies in the love that Katerina is finally able to express for him.

Free will

Frequently in The Brothers Karamazov, Dostoevsky emphasizes that in free will, God has given mankind a great responsibility, even a burden. Everyone is free to believe in God or not, and to do good or not. In every moment, man constantly has the ability to choose evil. It is not part of God's plan to provide convenient miracles that force doubters to believe or to respond to life's challenges in certain ways. Free will makes mankind's path more difficult, painful and dangerous, but it is necessary if man is to evolve beyond the state of childhood.

The part of the novel that most explicitly examines free will is Ivan's poem, The Grand Inquisitor, in Book V.

The Grand Inquisitor argues that when Christ rejected Satan's three temptations to perform miracles, he robbed man of the certainties of life (enough food, a rigid power structure, and a God who provides miracles in order to force people to believe) and instead, gave him free will. But free will is as much a curse as a blessing, since most people are not strong enough to refuse earthly securities in return for heavenly glory.

The Grand Inquisitor allies himself with Satan out of compassion for the weakness of mankind, to give man back the certainties of an all-powerful church that provides miracles on demand and a rigid social structure that enslaves man but ensures that he has enough food and shelter. In the Inquisitor's world, man's free will has been sacrificed in favor of social order and contentment.

Through his character of the Inquisitor, Ivan suggests that man would be better off being enslaved and secure rather than free and making the appalling mistakes that lead to the suffering of innocents. Though the Inquisitor's argument is convincing on the level of logic, it shows the emptiness and lack of faith in mankind that lies at the center of Ivan's philosophy and that eventually makes him lose his reason.

Within the poem, Christ's response to the Inquisitor is simply to kiss him on the lips - a profound gesture of love. Throughout the novel, Dostoevsky shows that to choose a life of love and faith, exemplified by Zosima and Alyosha, is the only constructive answer to the evil and suffering that spring from the exercise of free will. It is by no means the easy option, as is shown by Alyosha's crisis of soul after Zosima's death, but it is the humane one.

Moral responsibility

Zosima teaches that every person is responsible for everyone else's sins. This is why it is so important for people not to judge others but to practice active love, even regarding criminals, as through love, the criminal may repent and be reformed.

Alyosha takes this lesson to heart in that whenever he sees anyone suffering, he intervenes and does his best to help. It would be foreign to his nature to see someone suffering and walk on by. In Book V, in stark contrast with Zosima's and Alyosha's view, two characters deny responsibility for their fellow man: Smerdyakov tells Alyosha that he is not Dmitri's keeper; and Ivan says the same thing to Alyosha about Dmitri.

They mean that if Dmitri chooses to kill his father, they cannot do anything about it. Fyodor Pavlovich also expresses this idea in his utter failure to act as a father to his sons. Smerdyakov's and Ivan's insistence that they are not their brother's keepers echoes the biblical exchange between Cain and God about Abel, the brother whom Cain murdered: "And the Lord said unto Cain, Where is Abel thy brother? And he said, I know not: Am I my brother's keeper? And he [God] said, What hast thou done? The voice of thy brother's blood crieth unto me from the ground" (Genesis 4: 9-10).

It is no accident that Ivan, Smerdyakov and Fyodor Pavlovich express the opposite of Zosima's teachings with regard to moral responsibility. They all doubt God and the immortality of the soul, and draw the conclusion that the moral categories of good and evil do not exist.

In other words, "everything is permitted," every person can do as he wishes, and others should not interfere. This logical stance is backed up by the emotional factor that none of these men is a lover of humanity. Though Ivan loves humanity in the abstract, he is repulsed by, and distant to, individuals. Hence to Dostoevsky, a person who denies responsibility for his fellow man's sins is someone who fails to love.

The moral of the Cain and Abel story, and the moral of The Brothers Karamazov is that each person is indeed his brother's keeper - a realization that comes to Ivan just before Dmitri's trial and drives him insane.

By leaving town on the day of the murder, Ivan helped facilitate Smerdyakov's crime; even Alyosha played a part when, taken up with concern about the dying Zosima, he chose to return to the monastery rather than look for Dmitri.


The novel examines the man-made criminal justice system and finds it wanting, most notably in Ivan's The Grand Inquisitor poem, Zosima's anecdote of the philanthropist, and in Dmitri's trial. In the first example, the innocent Christ is jailed by the Grand Inquisitor for the 'crime' of setting man free.

That story is ironically reversed in the case of the wife-murdering philanthropist who escapes detection. In Dmitri's trial, untrue statements are made by the prosecution and defense, and the jury wrongly proclaims Dmitri's guilt. Dmitri's trial provides Dostoevsky with an opportunity to satirize the criminal justice system in detail. He emphasizes how any decision can be formed on the flimsy basis of circumstantial evidence, unreliable witnesses and even the hobbies of prosecuting lawyers (such as the interesting, but utterly mistaken, psychological insights of prosecutor Kirillovich).

Man-made justice, then, is shown to be unjust and unable to grasp the truth of any situation. It is also unable to reform the criminal, who is likely to respond to any punishment by further alienating himself from society. This is clear from the example of Kolya's ill-judged punishment of Ilyusha, which succeeds only in turning a well-meaning boy into a menace to society.

As Zosima says in Book II, Chapter 5, the only effective punishment is "the acknowledgement of one's own conscience." This alone can frighten the criminal enough to make him repent and reform. Zosima's words are proven by the cases of the philanthropist and Dmitri, who are wrongly judged by the criminal justice system but whose consciences provide effective punishment and sentences.

Redemption through suffering

When Zosima says that "the acknowledgement of one's own conscience" is the only effective punishment for doing wrong, he means that the person has to look within and face up to what he has done. This can entail great suffering. Repentance follows, and then reform.

Several characters in The Brothers Karamazov endure periods of suffering in which they develop spiritually. An example is Grushenka, who becomes very ill after Dmitri's trial and conviction (illness is often used in this novel as a symbol of spiritual purification).

In the course of the novel, she undergoes a transformation from a frivolous woman who plays with men's emotions to a serious, loving woman who fully intends to accompany Dmitri in exile and till the soil by his side. Her growth is partly due to her acceptance of responsibility for her part in the murder, the framing of Dmitri for the crime, and the verdict of guilt that is passed upon him.

The most obvious example of redemption through suffering is Dmitri. His redemption takes place as a result of his realization that though he did not murder his father, his intemperate passions partly enabled the murder to take place. He is also conscious of his many other sins: lying to almost everyone, stealing from Katerina, beating up his father and Snegiryov, and so on. In addition, after his dream of "the wee one" (the suffering baby), he realizes that he is to some degree responsible for everyone else's sins. As his trial approaches, he has a vision of redeeming himself through the suffering of hard labor in Siberia.

It is noteworthy that all these processes take place before the trial, which in comparison thoroughly fails in holding up a picture of truth to the defendant or in passing a just verdict. Thus Dostoevsky makes clear that examination of one's own conscience leads to a period of suffering, which in turn leads to redemption.

No part of this process is achieved through the criminal justice system. Two characters provide significant variations on the theme of redemption through suffering.

The first character is Lise, who rejects marriage with a good man who loves her (Alyosha) in favor of envisioning a marriage with someone who will torture her. In a parody of the theme of redemption through suffering, she punishes herself for her own wickedness by shutting her finger in the door. This ridiculous act of self-mutilation shows that not all suffering is necessary or constructive. Lise does not learn or redeem herself through suffering; she simply makes her life, and the lives of those around her, needlessly miserable.

The second character is Katerina, who shares with Lise a talent for creating suffering. She loves Ivan, but for most of the novel cannot bring herself to admit it, as she is too bound up in acting the martyr by devoting herself to Dmitri, who does not love her. Her redemption begins when she cries out for Ivan in court - an act of spontaneous love that marks the end of her previous tortured and strained relations with Dmitri and Ivan.

Her act is prompted by the ordeal of witnessing Ivan attempting to take responsibility for the murder in the witness box, thus saving his brother. Unfortunately, her testimony has the effect of further incriminating Dmitri. After the court case (according to Alyosha's belief), she feels overwhelmed by grief for her betrayal of Dmitri. Alyosha thinks that her pride is about to shatter, and he is right.

Katerina forgives Dmitri and Grushenka, and sets about nursing Ivan in his illness, thereby fully accepting her love for him. As well as redeeming Katerina, the relationship seems likely to redeem Ivan, too

Monday, October 24, 2011

Bernard Henry Levy: A Moral Tipping Point: Kadaffy's Death

October 23, 2011/The daily Beast

Those Images of his corpse. That face, still alive but bloodied, hounded, and taunted. That bare head—suddenly and oddly bare! We were used to seeing him in turbans, and there was something poignant in the denuding that renders this criminal strangely pitiable.

You can say that the man was a monster. You can replay again and again the scenes that for eight months have haunted the friends of free Libya—the images of mass executions, torture, the hangings of April 7, the prisoners who were sort of buried alive until released from their prisons by the revolution—these and so many other victims of the dictatorship.

You can point out that Gaddafi had a hundred chances to negotiate, to stop it all, to save himself, and that, if he elected not to do so, if he preferred to bleed his people to the very end, he chose his fate knowingly.

You can observe that the West is not necessarily in the best position to teach the rest of the world lessons about revolutionary mercy. After all, don’t the Europeans still have on their consciences the massacres of September 1792 in France? What about the women whose heads were shaved after the liberation of Paris? Mussolini hung by his feet and abused? The Ceausescus slaughtered like old cattle?

I don’t buy it. I may be an incurable romantic, or what amounts to the same thing, an unreconstructed opponent of the absolute evil that I believe the death penalty to be. There is, in the spectacle of Gaddafi’s lynching, something revolting.

Worse, I fear that it will pollute the essential morality of an insurrection that had been, up to that point, almost exemplary. And anyone who knows something about revolutionary history knows that this could be the tipping point at which a democratic uprising begins to degenerate into its opposite.

I said as much by telephone to some of my friends in the National Transitional Council. I said it to Mustafa el-Sagizli, the leader of the fighters in Cyrenaica, who called me to share his joy after the liberation of Sirte. And then, later on Thursday, to the commander of the regiment that included the unruly elements that struck and killed Gaddafi. He was happy. He said (and he was right) that the disappearance of the tyrant opens a new page in the history of his country.

Through a friend, a shipowner in Misrata who was translating into English for me, this commander gave me the scoop on the capture: “He treated us like rats, but he was the rat, down in his sewer pipe, and it was my fighters who found him, pulled him out of his hole, and subdued him.”

To him, too, I said that this was indeed a great day, a new dawn for Libya, but that the nobility of the conqueror is measured in how he treats the vanquished. “Do you know the difference between Caesar and Saladin?” I asked him. “Caesar, conqueror of the Gauls, lost the moral benefit of his victory by humiliating Vercing├ętorix, showing him off like a trophy before having him strangled. The glory of Saladin, by contrast, owes much to the magnanimity that he showed the Crusaders after he had defeated them and had them at his mercy.”

The commander seemed to understand. And the officials of the NTC whom I was able to reach sounded perfectly aware that the fate of the Libyan Spring may hang on these images. El-Sagizli, in particular, the prince of the Libyan resistance fighters and the organizer of the Benghazi resistance from the first days of March, clearly shared my concern. He is among those who insisted on a formal investigation, the very existence of which proves that the Libyan authorities are not rushing to cover up this act.

Two outcomes are possible.

Either this collective crime will be, like the beheading of the last king of France in Albert Camus’s account, the founding act of the coming era, which would be a terrible sign. Or it will be the swan song of a barbarous age, the end of the Libyan night, the death rattle of Gaddafi’s system, which, before expiring, must turn against its founder and inject him with his own venom, making way for a new era that will fulfill the promises of the Arab Spring.

As I write, the latter is my ardent wish. More than that, it is my conviction.


… I don’t buy it. I may be an incurable romantic, or what amounts to the same thing, an unreconstructed opponent of the absolute evil that I believe the death penalty to be. There is, in the spectacle of Gaddafi’s lynching, something revolting. Worse, I fear that it will pollute the essential morality of an insurrection that had been, up to that point, almost exemplary. And anyone who knows something about revolutionary history knows that this could be the tipping point at which a democratic uprising begins to degenerate into its opposite…

… but that the nobility of the conqueror is measured in how he treats the vanquished…

I read Levy’s short bit in Newsweek even before I noted that Arnon had, helpfully here, linked to it. The piece is very Levyesque, hallucinatory (some may call it impassioned) prose driving to exclamatory conclusions.

In the bits that I quoted I tried to locate Levy’s starting point. That point seems to be his opposition to the death penalty. And that point is added to do by the savagery in the treatment of Kadaffy culminating in his execution. A consequence of Levy’s starting point is, it logically seems, his presumable opposition to the execution of Kadaffy even had he gotten some legal process. (And on that same starting point I surmise Levy stood against Saddam Hussein’s execution, but I don’t know.)

While I join with Levy in finding something pitiable in the kicking, stomping, punching out and brutal manhandling savagery attending a shot, bleeding and dishevilled Kadaffy, I disagree with what I take to be Levy's opposition to any execution of Kadaffy. Not to turn the issue into whether capital punishment, but the retributive justification for it in domestic criminal law, itself undermined by the possibility and reality of sentencing error, can here be detached from that domestic setting to be so powerful so as to make anything but a death sentence incredibly counter intuitive. I think, if I’m right from in what I extrapolate to be Levy’s position, he would be dead, and, ironically, inhumanely, wrong to oppose Kadaffy’s execution, after process, on the basis of the consistent application of his, Levy’s, principles.

The other problem I have with Levy’s piece is his either/or assertion that, as he puts it, “Two outcomes are possible.” I find his way of looking at the future regime being so umbilically tied to the manner of Kadaffy’s final hours to be way too binary and way too emphasizing of the significance of the manner of Kadaffy’s death. Does the manner of his death warn as to ominous possibilities, as if a possible harbinger of them? Surely. But will the nature of the regime to come be necessarily informed by Kadaffy’s death? Not necessarily at all, I’d argue. Too many things can over time render Levy's stark over general alternatives absurd in their exclusion of possibilities.

These points raise problems I typically have with Levy apart from his exclamatory, declamatory style: the unflinching application of principle where context and circumstances argue persuasively otherwise; and consistent with that his typical posing of middle excluding alternatives.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

A Note To A Friend On The Brothers Karamazov

So I'm up to just before Dmitri's trial. And I'm working on a theory as I try to think the novel through while I read it almost breathlessly. I suspect, I don't know, that the reader is never given to know whether Dmitri actually murdered Fyodor. Please don't tell me if my suspicion is right or wrong because (1) I don't want the suspense wrecked; and (2) my embryonic theory doesn't depend on it, nor do I suspect does the novel's ultimate theme or meaning.

It's along these lines:

Ilusha's heart breaking sickness and death is inextricably morally tied to (not as such caused by) Dmitri in his degenerate, heedless dissipation pulling Ilusha's father out of the tavern by his beard ("Wisp of Tow") and beating him mercilessly in front of Ilusha, marking Ilusha indelibly and painfully with the beating's terrible memory.

So Dimitri is on trial metaphysically, as well as strict criminally, being called to account for all the wrongs he has done encapsulated by the beating of Ilusha's father and the virtual beating of Ilusha, the sheer breaking of his innocence. Grushenka says to Dmitri, "You are innocent, though you've been your own undoing." Part 3, Book IX, Chapter 9.

That such a trial is going on at least at two levels--the immediate criminal trial for parricide, and the sort of cosmic reckoning--is part of an incredibly fluid and complicated interplay by way of collision and dialectical merging and separating of all levels of meaning and facets of existence, including philosophical, religious and divine, moral, social (including all forms of human exchange including sexual and soulful), political and psychologically particular, as men and women conceive them, are informed by them, act on them, embody them and are conflicted by them within themselves and by the the complicated rush of circumstances attending them.

This is the rough shape my theory is taking, evolving as I read on, another 155 pages to go to reach page the last, 701.

The Idea Of Form As An Idea In Art: Adapted From The Meaning Of A Literary Idea, By Lionel Trilling

Analysis (not mine) as poetry and as the essence of the meaning of poetry, i.e. what poetry is, albeit with some editing of the analysis by me:

The Idea Of Form As An Idea

Thus it can be said
the very form
of a literary work
is itself an idea.
a developing series
of several stages,
the propriety,
the relevance,
of their
among themselves:
we make judgments
of the implied purpose.

Dialectic is form in art
leading the mind
to some conclusion,
conducting the mind,

The form of drama
is itself an idea.
The form of the drama
is its idea.
And its idea
is its form.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Literature and Morality

Response to something written by a friend:

...I enjoyed reading your essay. It covers a lot of ground and is taxonomically useful. The heart of the essay to my mind, where you get most serious and interesting, is your dealing with “Liberal Moralism,” which also happens to pertain to Trilling. That’s what I’ll comment on though of course there’s lots to say on other parts of your essay.

I’d note though before commenting on that part that the distinction between “aestheticism” and “moralism” seems an exercise in futility. Some may argue as do Pater or less gloriously George Moore; and some may argue as do the “Critical Roundheads.” But why should we care? At their extreme, which is your opening characterization of them, they are middle-excluding and time wasting positions for any practical consideration of the issues Liberal Moralism addresses.

One of the problems with your essay is that you don’t distinguish sufficiently among different arts or within different arts. That said, I’ll confine most of my comments to the novel.

In contrast with the extreme positions you sketch, each excluding the other by definition, you note that most moralist critics “…accept that there is an irreducible aesthetic element in all art.” (That sounds like a truism.) But, as you note, they deny aesthetic autonomy, which you qualify to mean that artistic (or aesthetic) value depends on “moral value.” You don’t define what “moral value” means.

For this I’d go back to your opening discussion of the non-distinction between aesthetic effects and moral and cognitive effects, rightly seeing the latter within the aesthetic and within the direct effects of art. What I’d emphasize though is (using your word) the primacy of art as irreducibly aesthetic or artistic, which is to say, the moral dimension and cognitive dimension of a work must be seen—in being critically responsive—as an integral part of the artistry of a work, not something to be detached and then discussed, that detachment inveighed against by Susan Sontag in Against Interpretation.

In these terms "moral" in a novel is, I’d argue, coterminus with theme, and theme has no meaning save for how it arises from form or style. For form and content are, ultimately, intrinsically related ways of speaking about the same thing—the work as a whole, whether seen as process or as product.

Thinking about the novel this way makes irrelevant the a priori argument in favour of “the primacy of the moral”--that being the primacy of the moral in considering courses of action. The question of primacy here is a non question, for critics are right to focus responsively on any aspect of the novel they choose, whether it be the symbolism and imagery of the river in Huckleberry Finn, its themes, the critical problem of its ending or anything else that it or any
book properly gives rise to.

And, too, thinking about the novel this way displaces any thought that its artistry or aesthetic value depends on its moral content—a thought you say is common to all liberal moralists. Really, on reflection, it’s the other way around. The resonance and power of a novel’s view of the world—which is theme, properly understood—emerge from its formal artistry, and is, as I say, ultimately and conceptually indivisible from that artistry. So if the liberal moralists say what you say they say, then I say they don’t understand the art of the novel.

I’ll conclude this note with a comment about what you call, inconsistently, at the end of Part VI and the beginning of Part VII both the intrinsic nature of art and the intrinsic values of art. I say “inconsistently” because nature and values are conceptually separable. Regardless, you get into interesting territory in summarizing the moral impact of art. I note though that there is some slippage in that summary given your categories because about half of that summarized impact is psychological and cognitive and not moral—“the psychological effects of…”—the other half being the promotion of imaginative sympathy.

Again, regardless, I accept the first half and have doubts about the second, based on my own experience and not being familiar with “the literature” on art's moral impact. I, a more than average reader, am not a whit more empathetic because of it. My wife, who reads considerably less than I, is infinitely more compassionate and empathetic than I. There is no line that I can draw around people I know who are quantitatively above average readers, cordoning them off for their heightened sense of compassion and empathy.
So I reject that putative moral benefit.

And, finally, finally, what “serious positive moral impact” does seeing a tragedy produce other than that which is affective? Naturally we are moved more by tragedy because of its very nature; that its impact is great is a truism. But against that the whole idea of catharsis on experiencing tragedy in art is a superimposition and if a true effect, which I doubt, then certainly not a universal one. And, certainly, the idea of catharsis doesn't lend itself either to description of, or prescription for, the nature of tragic drama .

We are in some sense better for having seen, experienced, tragic drama, but no more than for seeing, experiencing, the paintings of Modigliani. But, no, we are not better morally for either of those experiences though some feel the need to think they are. I say to be better morally we need more than to have our consciousnesses heightened, though that is no small thing. We would need to be moved by what we experience to do good works for art to be morally beneficent. Otherwise, “moral impact” is a high falutin self-flattery for those who would see themselves so morally bettered.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Thoughts on Lionel Trilling's Essay Freud and Literature as Appears in The Liberal Imagination

Me to a friend:

Okay, I just finished Trilling's essay. And I had a roller coaster of responses to it.

I've already said what I thought as to the beginning of its Part 1.

Trilling then he descends into intellectual history to try to paint the canvas of the times' ideas to give the intellectual context Freud operated within. I don't think that takes him very far and I don't find his foray particularly illuminating, mostly a lot of academic jibber jabber.

I liked his Part 11. He makes clarifying remarks in rescuing Freud from those who see him as a champion of the dark side. He helpfully stresses Freud's rationalism and his humane commitments. He is helpful in his discussion on Freud's views of art and is rightly critical of them and notes how his views of art, as part of his theory, serve to limit their serviceability to literature.

He also is good on showing how his psychoanalytic practice, with its own broad and clinically specific division between reality and illusion, is an important source for Freud's wrong-headed notions about art. And Trilling is good under this head stating the obvious contrast between (a) dreams and neuroses and (b) literary texts, an obvious contrast that Freud more or less conflates in his erroneous views on art.

I also liked Part 111. Trilling demolishes, using the example of Hamlet, the delusion shared by Freud and Jones that by events they believed to be true in Shakespeare's life they have penetrated its and his deepest meanings, which is to say, the deepest meaning of the play and Shakespeare's psyche. (Freud's absurdity here is also evident in case study monograph of da Vinci's life and his art.)

So far so good, more or less: but then we get to Part 1V where Trilling tries to make his case for the valuable applicability of Freud to literature. And in my judgment, given how he argues his case, he fails for the very reason, I'd argue, originally stated by me. The shoring of Trilling’s case depends on the acceptance of the malarkey of Freud's "systematic account of the human mind." I say Trilling's case is as weak as the charge that Freud's account is malarkey is strong.

That's my position and I'm sticking to it till I'm persuaded otherwise by my betters.

"The Middle East Today: Ha, Ha, Ha! Stop! It’s Too Funny! I Can’t Take It Any More!"

By Barry Rubin/Pyjamas Media/October 15, 2011

There’s a saying that goes something like this: When things are bad, a Jew cries. When they get even worse, a Jew cries more. And when they even get worse, a Jew laughs. As indelicate as this may seem, the current situation makes me want to laugh.

That’s so because things are more ridiculous than they are scary. As the advice and claims of others get increasingly absurd, you have no desire to listen to them. You just have to do what you know is right and stop having any doubts about it precisely because the arguments on the other side are just so historically inaccurate, factually false,.and illogical.

For those joining the story late–a group that seems to include Western politicians, media and academic “experts”–here’s a little background. In 1993, Israel made an agreement with the PLO to try to achieve peace. It turned over the Gaza Strip and much of the West Bank to a Palestinian government. Israel accepted the establishment of large security forces, the supply of guns, and the transfer of billions of dollars of aid.

Israel made major offers of territory and concessions to Syria and the Palestinian Authority in 2000, after almost a decade of negotiation. The other side rejected those compromise solutions. The Palestinian leadership instead launched a five-year-long war of terrorism. They lost. Then Israel was attacked by Hizballah. The world intervened and made promises to Israel. These were broken. Then Israel was attacked by Hamas. It defended itself. Again it won, but the world rushed in to save Hamas and to condemn Israel.

Of course, you can say that Israel did mean things and didn’t keep every commitment it made. Yet any balanced and honest assessment has to acknowledge the basic accuracy of the preceding summary. And any that doesn’t is basically worthless as a guide to policy or education.

Now, what are the latest developments? Well, let’s see:

–Turkey’s government has gone beserk (in fact, a product of its Islamism and a celebration of breaking the armed forces that posed the last barrier to their total control of the country) and has started acting as if it is at war with Israel. There is a real possibility that Turkish naval vessels will escort ships organized by terrorist groups to violate a legal blockade to strengthen a regime in the Gaza Strip that openly talks about killing all of the world’s Jews. That government, behaving as if it is at war with Israel, is simultaneously being used by the U.S. government to help direct Syria’s future and lead its main new counterterrorism project.

Feel the chuckles coming on yet?

–The Palestinian Authority, allied with the aforementioned antisemitic, genocidal Hamas, violates all of the agreements it made during the last 18 years—after refusing to negotiate for 2 years—by seeking unilateral independence in the UN. This would mean it will never have to negotiate with Israel or compromise in any way. Thus, this stratagem will kill any chance of negotiations.

Nevertheless, countries are lining up to vote in favor of this proposal. It’s the ultimate embodiment of “social justice” and endless entitlements. The Palestinians “deserve” a state and don’t have to do anything at all to obtain one except to demand it.

–Egypt’s revolution is baying for Israel’s blood. Palestinian-Egyptian terrorists cross Israel’s border and kill Israeli civilians; a mob attacks the Israeli embassy as the authorities stand by and do nothing. Hysteria returns to the country as if the Camp David peace agreement never happened. The Muslim Brotherhood—which we were told is weak and not Islamist—is now heading toward either a takeover or at least becoming the country’s most powerful force.

–What is the reaction in much of the Media, Universities, and Governments? Let’s use the appropriate acronym for this trio—MUG. Guess who is getting mugged?

Let me limit myself to one example of the genre. The former failed and minor Jewish organizational politician Seymour Reich writes in the NewYork Times:

“Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu gained nothing—except placating his right-wing coalition — by rebuffing President Obama’s proposal in May for negotiating Israeli-Palestinian borders based on the 1967 lines with mutually agreed swaps, although some reports indicated that he may have later softened his stand.”

This is an amazing paragraph, if only for the fact that Reich attacks Netanyahu for taking a position that Reich admits he didn’t actually take! And after many occasions on which Netanyahu did precisely what Reich wants failed. Of course, there’s no mention about years of Palestinian intransigence or of the previous risks and concessions made by Israel and even by Netanyahu.

I do not mean this as a direct reference to Mr. Reich but as an observation to the current institutional set-up. In Biblical times, one sold out for a bowl of stew (“mess of pottage”) while today one does so for a New York Times op ed piece, or perhaps a tenured professorship, or admiring media coverage of oneself. Christians speak of “the wages of sin.” Well, those salaries are at all-time highs, with great fringe benefits, and extremely low unemployment.

Reich continues. “Mr. Netanyahu must step back from the brink. He should cast aside his far-right coalition members, form a government with moderate parties and add a freeze on settlement construction to an offer to negotiate without preconditions. This would demonstrate seriousness.”

Why does Israel or Netanyahu need to show at this date that they are serious? Doesn’t the virtually daily efforts of Netanyahu to restart negotiations show seriousness? The nine-month-long settlement freeze? The quick acceptance of Obama’s proposal for a summit conference at the end of 2009?

I will pay no more attention to these people. They are not serious. They are deaf to what we say and blind to what we do. They are not dealing with reality. As our next-door neighbors say: Let them go drink the Nile!

They only have one note: It’s all Israel’ fault! If it only had offered more and accepted a Palestinian state everything would be fine. If it gave everything and demanded nothing—since the PA is unwilling to make any concession—then everything would be fine.

As to everything else in the region from Palestinian intransigence to the alliance with Hamas to events in Egypt and Turkey, there only response is to say that it’s not really happening! The Muslim Brotherhood was real sorry about the attack on the embassy (then how come it endorsed the assault?) The moderate secularists will win everywhere. Turkey is just miffed that Israel didn’t capitulate totally.

Israel is isolated! So rather than be isolated it should make every concession demanded of it? And then everyone will love it and give up the war against it.

The fact that this is what we have been told repeatedly and it hasn’t happened means nothing! Oh, no. This time, once Israel goes back to the pre-1967 borders, recognizes the Fatah-Hamas regime, and doesn’t make trouble over little things like the Palestinians refusing to end the conflict even under those conditions; the military build-up in Palestine; and the demand that a few million Palestinians can come live in Israel then everything will really be great!

Are we supposed to take this seriously? Starting to understand why I’m laughing?

Let me take one example out of hundreds to show the absurdity of the situation. The sufferings of which Palestinians so upsets and animates Egyptians, Turks, and the Western left? Those in the Gaza Strip. What is the strategy of the Gaza Strip’s government? Kill the Jews. It is more openly radical than the policy of the PLO in the 1960s and1970s. How many Israeli soldiers and settlements are in the Gaza Strip? Zero. How many rockets from the Gaza Strip are in Israel? Thousands! So this is why I’m laughing.

First, the claims, arguments, and demands being made against Israel are ridiculous.

Second, they have become so ridiculous that maybe people should start to notice.

Third, since there is no alternative in the face of this nonsense, we know that our course is a correct one. We know that more risks, concessions, and apologies will have no positive effect for Israel’s interests or security. We know that courting death and disaster will not even win applause or sympathy.

Please listen very carefully and I will put the following conclusions in boldface:

The Palestinians and Arab regimes have given us no reason to believe that more concessions and risks will bring us any closer to a stable and secure peace. They have given us every reason to believe that they will quickly forget what Israel has done and go back to their default goal of wiping Israel off the map.

The Western democracies have given us no reason to believe that more concessions and risks will bring us greater support and more help from them if and when those actions backfire against Israel. They have given us every reason to believe that they will quickly forget what Israel has done and go back to their default position that it is all Israel’s fault

Today, Israel gives up south Lebanon, the Gaza Strip, the Sinai, and most of the West Bank as well as offering all of the Golan Heights to Syria. Tomorrow they will say that Israel has done nothing. The radicals claim that Israel does not want peace; the relative moderates that Israel hasn’t shown that it wants peace.

Consequently, with full good conscience, we can justify our laughter on pragmatic realpolitik or on spiritual terms. Regarding the former, an idiotic analysis fails; the truth comes out; those who follow foolish policies fall.

And for those of you who are spiritually inclined: “The wicked plot against the righteous, and threatens him with his teeth. The Lord doth laugh at him; for He sees that his day is coming.” –Psalm

Note to a Friend on Trilling, James, Freud and Dwight MacDonald

...I got ahead of myself. I finished Trilling's essay on The Princess Casamassima before really getting into the novel, which I will read. The essay is superb; but my problem is me having it read it in that vacuum. There would be no gainsaying the fineness of the essay by dissenting from Trilling's interpretation of course; and even without having read the novel, I have sort of instinctive doubts about Hyacinth Robinson's suicide being an act of heroic sacrifice, as Trilling puts it, transcending the nature of civilized life by his consciousness. I must of course read the book.

One question for you: at the end of his essay Trilling uses the phrase a lot "moral realism." It's not clear to me what he means by it. The best I can make out is that it means James has a compassionate understanding and feeling for his characters and presents them in the fullness of their own complexities. On that understanding, the phrase does not refer to doing a certain kind of good works or standing for such and such set of values; rather James's authorial integrity is the "moral" part of his realism, the way as, Trilling puts it, borrowing from Marianne Moore, James gets the "toad of fact" into the garden of the imagination.

I have started reading Trilling's essay Freud and Literature and in that one the genteel professor has gotten off to a bad start to my mind--I'm only a few pages in--by putting Freud's alleged "systematic account of the human mind"--now so discredited--on a pedestal with literature for understanding man. This kind of thing is embarrassing to read and how inapt is the comparison, even with Freud's "science" not having been discredited.

Literature, after all, as Trilling centrally argues, is of variousness, complexity and irresolution, the "secret" source of which is man's nature. Freud is intellectually totalitarian, neurotically (I understand the seeming mild irony in using the word) reductive, generating complication from an irreducible (reified) model of how the mind works, his literary disciples then conflating that complication with literature's complexity. Literature predominately speaks to no such irreducible "secret" causes.

The true comparison is not Freudian thought to literature but rather to post modernism, which, in its application to literature, presupposes hidden totalitarian human mechanisms as the fount of all human behaviour as reflected in texts, textual surface on analysis betraying tensions and fissures leading inexorably back to first causes—hence the need to deconstruct. This is so at odds with Trilling's literary criticism as a humane project.

Finally, I ordered, got and started reading Dwight MacDonald's essays in Against The Grain, also edited by Louis Menand. Of course MacDonald has powerful insights but he sounds quaint to my 2011 sense of things, his categories so unnecessarily rigid...

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Note To A Friend On The Brothers Karamazov

...I hope you don't mind my occasional comment.

This novel is knocking me out even as I read it slowly at 20-40 pages a day. I'm slightly south of mid way through. I don't have many outlets for my enthusiasm.

I only wanted to note what an absolutely amazing, psychologically fluid scene it is when Ratikin takes Alyosha to meet with Grushenka just after Alyosha virtually runs from the monastery on the satisfied reaction of so many monks to Father Zossima's premature decomposition.

The constant shifts in her attitudes and behaviour, the mixture in Alyosha of spiritual and sexual arousal, the dissing of Ratikin, the tension of whether she'll go back to the officer who used her four years before are all something else.

And that shape shifting narrator, sometimes omniscient, sometimes at the limit of what he knows, and sometimes like a Greek chorus, the voice and sensibility of the community--I really have never read anything like this novel even though I've read Crime and Punishment.

Anyway thanks for lending me your ear, which I hope I repay you with a smidge of interest...

A Few Brief Thoughts On The Middle East

I have always liked Netanyahu and haven't understood American Jews' animosity toward him, including some of my friends who are strongly pro Israel. I had dinner with a couple of them last night and couldn't get a clear answer that I understood as justifying their particular venom.

As for the settlements in the West Bank, I have generally followed the politically correct party line that they're a "mistake." But I have changed my mind about that in some ways.

First, I have come to the conclusion that regardless of what the U.N. resolves endlessly, it's not clear that the settlements are illegal. And my basis for thinking that is the very language in S.C. Res. 242.

Second, given legal unclarity, there's somethinng to be said for creating facts on the ground in the face of the heart of the entire problem--Arab intransigence. Facts on the ground, after all, whatever else they may be, are facts on the ground. Arab intransigence cannot, should not and does not go on with impunity, without consequence.

Third, if Israel completes its wall/fence and cedes the rest of the West Bank, while maintaining a watchful military presence, that sounds like the makings of a good unilateral solution until real peace comes around and stands to avoid the demographic, economic and political problems that continued unfettered occupation bring.

Finally, Netanyahu and Israeli policy, including its settlement policy, reflect the will of its citizenry. It is a citizenry that has lusted after peace and was willing to take risks and compromises to get it--Olmert's last offer to Abbas, for instance--but continuous rejection has led the country to see these matters as she now see them.

And who living abroad, with no harm beckoning them, can really be so quick to condemn what Israelis feel about where they now are?

Friday, October 14, 2011

A Few Thoughts On Louis Menand's Introduction To The Liberal Imagination

1. Pay attention to the assumptions and unsystematic thoughts of most people, their attitudes and assumptions, their customs and manners. They require and repay critical attention. Okay. I guess that's what sociologists and social psychologists do. What's so profound about Trilling thinking so?

2. All liberals of whatever stripe from Hayekian to progressives have in common a belief in human perfectibility and in a kind of straight line to human happiness. Against that Trilling educates us in the truth that life is rife with evil, unfairness, tragic conflict, yadda yadda yadda and that these are the stuff of literature. The first part of this is a moronic characterization, ie Trilling's not Menand's, and the second is a yawn inducing bromide.

3. The function of criticism is to identify "hygienic" works of literature and unhealthy ones and explain why they lead to good or bad political consequences. "Dreiser and James: with that juxtaposition we are immediately at the dark and bloody crossroads where literature and politics meets...The liberal judgment of Dreiser and James goes back to politics goes back to the cultural assumptions that makes politics." Menand says, "it makes it seem as though a lot is at stake in getting books right. It assigns literary criticism a mission."

I don't think there is anything I agree with here. I don't understand tracing political consequences as having anything to do with literary criticism. I don't think judging, say, Dreiser or James need have anything to do with politics or where literature and politics meet. How do they meet? James said, give the artist his idea, grant him that and then assess him. Trilling seems to be saying either the opposite or something distinctly different. James was right, Trilling wrong in this. Finally, Trilling was overwrought in thinking that critics are manning a kind of barricades in keeping culture and society in tact by their evaluations.

4. Trilling says there is no stable point outside a culture from which to critique it. Culture needs the adversarial and subversive and these are built into a culture, of its nature, and therefore created by it. Culture cannot survive with them. So Trilling came to look at culture the way anthropologists do. If I understand this, I don’t see what so looking at culture has to do with literary criticism. Plus in looking at culture anthropologically isn't Trilling exactly looking at it from a stable point outside it?

5. Finally, Menand notes Trilling fretted over the pernicious uses literature might be put to, say--Trilling’s example--Laurentian sexual radicalism. It seems to me Trilling needn’t have worried. Literature doesn’t operate like that particularly in liberal societies.