Thursday, January 26, 2017

A Note On The End Of Dostoyevsky's The Gambler


Dostoyevsky's The Gambler:

At the end of Dostoyevsky's The Gambler, Alexei Ivanovich in conversation with the Englishman Astley, who is a stable, virtuous man, and personifies a kind of moral norm, learns among other things that Polina, in Switzerland with Astley's sister, now financially stable, having gotten a legacy from the General's old aunt, indeed loves Alexei. In fact she has in effect  "commissioned" Astley to seek Alexei out and find out his "feelings and thoughts and hopes" and his memories of her too:

" was at HER request I came to Homburg, in order to see you, and to have a long, serious talk with you, and to report to her your feelings and thoughts and hopes — yes, and your recollections of her, too?”

“Indeed? Is that really so?” I cried — the tears beginning to well from my eyes. Never before had this happened."

For Alexei to be able to join Polina and reciprocate her love would, as Astley and Alexei see it, pull him out of his wretched abyss of death in life. But Astley thinks Alexei is incapable of this. He's beyond all reach:

"Yes, poor unfortunate,” continued Astley. “She DID love you; and I may tell you this now for the reason that now you are utterly lost. Even if I were also to tell you that she still loves you, you would none the less have to remain where you are. Yes, you have ruined yourself beyond redemption."

After, Alexei, in a delirium of rushed thoughts, records in his feverish writings that if he can pull himself together and get to Polina in Switzerland and show her that he is a new man, then that will confer life on him, bring him back from the dead. If only he can:

"I need to ACT. Above all things I need to think of Switzerland. Tomorrow, tomorrow — Ah, but if only I could set things right tomorrow, and be born again, and rise again from the dead! But no — I cannot. Yet I must show her what I can do. Even if she should do no more than learn that I can still play the man, it would be worth it. Today it is too late, but TOMORROW . . ."

But, in my reading, Alexei's "Today it is too late, but TOMORROW..." is his rationalizing his failure, as he puts it, "to ACT." It's his putting off today for a tomorrow that, however much it's salve for his abstract longings, will never come. Rather his closing thoughts concern his addicted attraction to the sheer excitement of being suspended in nothing, in utter disorder, instability and unknowing, where a single turn of the roulette wheel can mean fortune or disaster, that excitement the gambler's insatiable narcotic:

"...I have only to remember what happened to me some months ago at Roulettenberg, before my final ruin. What a notable instance that was of my capacity for resolution! On the occasion in question I had lost everything — everything; yet, just as I was leaving the Casino, I heard another gulden give a rattle in my pocket! “Perhaps I shall need it for a meal,” I thought to myself; but a hundred paces further on, I changed my mind, and returned. That gulden I staked upon manque — and there is something in the feeling that, though one is alone, and in a foreign land, and far from one’s own home and friends, and ignorant of whence one’s next meal is to come, one is nevertheless staking one’s very last coin! Well, I won the stake, and in twenty minutes had left the Casino with a hundred and seventy gulden in my pocket! That is a fact, and it shows what a last remaining gulden can do. . . . But what if my heart had failed me, or I had shrunk from making up my mind? . . .

No: tomorrow all shall be ended!" 

In my reading of The Gambler, "tomorrow" will be but and always for Alexei the day before the next "tomorrow." 

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

My View Of Half Blood Blues By Esi Edugyan


Half Blood Blues, Esi Edugyan

Finished it. 

My view. 

Spoilers everywhere:

Chip near the end of Half Blood Blues says-I paraphrase crudely from memory-on the worth of jazz, "The world is all accident but through playing jazz we give accident order, meaning and purpose." Contingency operates everywhere in this novel, from how the Kid is found by Butterstein, to how the single recorded track of the Kid's playing is kept, secreted away, then found--"a ghost story," recounts Sid, to how Sid is there when the Kid's exit papers arrive, and to so much else. 

But for ever how much circumstances operate, order and meaning come through not just by playing jazz, but by how people are where they find themselves, how they act towards each other, how they do right and how they do wrong. These contingent circumstances for musicians include how some are just plain born geniuses like Louis Armstrong or the Kid and maybe Chip and how some can never be better than mediocre, than being the support, the journeymen as is Sid, trapped by and bitter about it too, caught intolerably in his own limitations. 

And so while the novel is set in significant particular times, 1939/1940, various years before 1939, and 1992-the novel's present, and and in significant particular places, namely Baltimore, Berlin, Paris and latterly Poland, and while setting and place are of the greatest importance, even more important is how people act in them. 

While some may say the central character is the Kid, I don't think so. I argue the central character is the narrator Sid Griffiths, the bassist, the mediocrity, the dispensable supporting musician, the never-better-than journeyman player. The novel, after all, is completely set in his consciousness and memory, as he reconstructs how everything has affected him. In the book, finally everything comes back to him. And so the core of Half Blood Blues involves how Sid conducts himself in his times and places in the circumstances, as contingencies add up to form the particularities of his worlds, the world of 1939/40 and of 1992. While it stands fair to say the novel is about many things, race, love, music, the play of accident, friendship, other things, what Sid does as a matter of right and wrong, why he does it, the meaning and consequences of his actions are, I think, what Half Blood Blues is centrally about. In that way, we might say it's centrally a kind of fictional character study of a particular man in particular and connected times and places

For me, there's no gainsaying why Sid does what he does in hiding the Kid's late-arriving exit papers out of German occupied Paris and then lying to Delilah about it and never at the time or after coming clean about it. He partly rationalizes to himself that he hid the papers so that the remnants of the band can finish a satisfactory recording of Half Blood Blues. But that's not it all. That's only a pretext for his malevolence driven by his jealousy over Delilah's rejecting him for the Kid, his jealously at the Kid's effortless musical genius, his bitterness at Louis Armstrong cutting him out of recording and his being driven by his inveterate rage at and dissatisfaction with his failed self. 

This becomes clear, on reflection, when we consider the early scene in the Bug's cafe when the Germans take the Kid away and Sid positions himself to watch impotently what happens without stepping up to help. In the documentary, Chip is right about Sid's treachery and moral responsibility for it happening but wrong about what precisely comprises Sid's fault. It's not so much that Sid didn't then try to lend a helping hand, an impotence that might be understandable and forgivable but for the the preexisting malevolence in hiding the papers and letting the Kid go out without them. 

Then, what a little reflection tells us is that when the Germans were taking the Kid away because he was without papers, Sid could have intervened to explain that the papers existed and he could take the Germans to them or bring them to the Germans. Chip of course couldn't know that; so the particulars and emphasis in his indictment of Sid in the documentary are wrong, but Chip is all too right in the spirit and larger meaning of his blaming Sid for the Kid's bad end. 

In the final and lovely scenes in 1992 in Poland with Chip and Sid together with the previously thought-dead Hiero, now to be called Thomas in emblem of his new post war life, I, contrary to others, see no reconciliation or forgiveness a such. I see, rather, a helplessly tragic passivity borne of the resignation and calm that withering old age brings Thomas, rooted in the realization that all the storms and egregiousness of the past finally don't matter because it's all so long ago and nothing can be done about it. Death itself is what is at hand. 

This is the calm, wise, tragic perspective of Thomas, indifferently resigned now to having been malevolently cheated of the fullness in music and perhaps worldly success his genius promised his life. Sid is as hesitant, halting, weak, paralyzed and tormented at the end of the novel as has has been throughout it. There is no expiation, only the beneficent conferral of some partial comfort in knowing that Thomas now knows and is too frail, too old, too resigned, too blind and too beaten down to care. For me, though, Thomas's resignation notwithstanding, Sid's actions form a Scarlet Letter mark that forever condemns him to our unremittingly harsh judgment. In the end, the novel is both unforgiving and tragic

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Dylann Roof, Capital Punishnent, And Principle


The anti capital punishment barricades.

National Post journalist Robert J. Wiersema's visit back to Mailer's outstanding Executioner's Song, bidding fair to be Mailer's greatest work, greater than any of his unreadable novels, greater than Armies Of The Night, transcending his self obsessed self promotion and chaotically unruly and made-loudly-public personal life, raises in my mind a fascinating question in light of the upcoming execution of the horrid Dylann Roof.  

In Executioner's Song, so much of the literary greatness comes in this contrast: the plain, flat, declarative, unvarnished prose as befits Western Voices, in rendering the prosaic place from where Gary Gilmore springs; and the page turning account of the frenzied Eastern Voices, all journalistic hustle and last minute legal bustle as Mailer brilliantly unfolds the compelling drama of the attempt to stave off the  execution by the anti capitalpunishmentists.

There must be those now equally committed to what they claim is the anachronistic barbarity of state sanctioned murder. Will there be an equally fervent effort to save Roof's life? Will the principle of their cause stand beyond the universally felt horror of what he's done?

If there are those who fight for saving his life on principled grounds, I salute them.

But my supposition is there will be nothing like the groundswell for commutation or overturning the death sentence as there was for Gilmore.

Why not? 

My speculation is that here, if I'm right in what I expect, here, where the horror is principle's sternest test, political correctness will trump principle. 

For myself, I had long ago rejected capital punishment on moral principle, then came through a certain journey in my head to argue for it for certain crimes so horrendous that only the most awe inspiring punishment would salve the retributive urge, which urge forms one of the policy pillars of criminal law sentencing law. But then I became persuaded that the frailties and mistakes in verdicts based on uncertain evidence made abolition necessary on a cost benefit basis rather than strictly on the principled ground of the sheer immorality of the state taking a life, a ground I no longer subscribe to.

In the case of Roof though, I say throw him to the hounds of hell. Functionally his case raises no issues that underlie why I oppose capital punishment.

But for those who object to capital punishment on pure moral ground, I await your efforts.

Sunday, January 22, 2017

A Note On Philip Roth's American Pastoral


American Pastoral

I'm nearing, I think I'm nearing,  the end of the meeting finally, finally  had between the Swede and his daughter. And again I'm struck agog at Roth's brilliance and moved indescribably by what he evokes.

He is totally masterful in his control over the unfolding of  what he creates: Meredith's mad, nihilistic, self abnegating  utopianism is articulated by her with such calm, impregnable rationality, rationality because it's internally consistent in its absurdity, absurdity being a judgment about it, and not, as put by Roth via the Swede, the conclusion of an attack that can logically disassemble it. 

What helps make that madness so dramatically affecting is the Swede's insatiable decency, his unrelenting but futile effort to bring his daughter back to her senses, back to his love for her, back to her family, back to sanity, health and life. His calm, quiet, loving, insistent pleas and arguments to her show his unremitting parental bond--accented by her repeatedly calling him "Daddy"--rooted in both instinctive and understood love and obligation to a child, even an adult child, even a murderous adult child, stretched beyond limit, stretched past the point of fraying to breaking, still frustratingly intact. 

Why frustratingly? 

The reader, at least I do, wants to shout at the Swede, as Jerry his brother the shrink does, "Stop! Enough all ready! Stop reasoning with her! Get ferocious with her! Scream at her! Grab her and shake her out of her calm imperturbability! Drag her, kicking and screaming if need be, to a hospital ward! Or just write her off, please! Enough already!" 

But no, not the Swede. As I'm right now reading American Pastoral, his (maybe inhuman) tolerance and relatively tranquil approach to his daughter continues.  

The exploding of Utopianism in this meeting is as pitched and bitter as any I can remember ever reading in literature. There is a subtle trace, a subtle subtext, of Swiftian satire in the exploding, but the subtlety never obtrudes on the realism of the Swede's agonized, frenzied really, attempts to get his daughter back. The impact of his agony is only heightened by his iron willed discipline in keeping himself calm and quiet in the midst of and confronting Meredith's madness, her stuttering gone. Better she should stutter, thinks the Swede, than this.

It's all, every word of it, utterly amazing writing.

Monday, January 16, 2017

Free Will And Zola's Therese Raquin


I recently finished reading Zola's Therese Raquin, which was, among other things, a lurid, repetitive slog, but interesting and compelling too, so I kept at it.

There's a lot that can be said about it, but I'll just comment on one thing--Zola's delusion, sent forth in his Preface, which is, really, an Afterwords, written in response to criticism that his book is pornographic, that he's in effect conducting a scientific study of conflicting temperaments set in explosive situations. And his after-the-fact prefatory thesis is that morality is irrelevant to his project, that, in fact, it's outside it since his characters have no free will, their courses of action predetermined by the confluence of heredity and environment operating in the circumstances. 

This view is similar to Sam Harris's argument against free will in his The Illusion Of Free Will. Our actions are simply a series of links in a causal chain of events over which we never had or have any say. In fact, they occur in a zone and by factors that have zero to do with our say. And, so, as given by Harris's title, our certain sense that we are making willed choices is but an illusion, a false belief. Zola in his Preface says as much is his own terms. 

For example, and broad brushing the story with the broadest of  brushes, Therese by virtue of the her African/Algerian's mother's blood flowing through her is innately passionate and fiery but has repressed that due to the formative and stifling influence of Madame Raquin. Therese is repressed to the point of inhumanly squelched passivity. 

All that repression finds inescapable release when she meets Laurent, who Camille just happens to bump into and bring home. 

Laurent, drawn to her in virtue of his felt apprehension of her attraction to him, must have her as she must have him. And so, as they must, they have each other in a burning, insatiable, sexually compulsive affair until practical obstructions prevent their meeting. Their ardor burns in the denial of their flesh until they must murder Camille to put all obstruction aside. And they do. 

By their natures, however, their murder staunches their lust, the drive of which ineluctably becomes perverted in their mounting abuse of each other. That perversion takes a variety of turns, including sadomasochism in Laurent's constant beating of Therese at her purposeful goading him, and including an attempted escape into sheer degeneracy by each of them. Zola presents each perverse turn as inevitably flowing from the previous one until, as it must be, Therese and Laurent, unbeknownst to each other, independently decide to kill the other.   

Zola in his Preface says no moral judgment ought bear on their actions, that he lost himself in meticulously examining and dissecting them the way a doctor might lose any sense of the outside world in examining and dissecting a corpse. They are "human animals" whose animal natures he was intent on minutely disclosing through the means of his heavily and precisely detailed story. They have no souls, he says; they have no guilt. Guilt is an irrelevant category. Zola wants his novel to be, we might say, a simulated empiricist exercise in scientific determinism, what then came to be called naturalism in fiction.

But, I'd argue, Therese Raquin is incoherent in these terms. It's impossible to strip guilt out of the novel and have it make any sense. There's no other material way to account for the (over the top, repeated and repeated to a numbing fault) real and symbolic suffering, despair, occasional loss of sanity, pervading hallucinatory visions of Camille, mutual ongoing recrimination, mutually inflicted torture, terror, descent into degeneracy, sadomasochism, obsession and compulsion, nor account for the permanence of Camille's burning scar on Laurent's neck, nor for the imagery of burning and fevered flesh, nor of cages, vaults and imprisonment, let alone all the other ways Zola depicts Therese's and Laurent's suffering and infliction of such horrid suffering on each other.  

We need ask: why all this human suffering and horror if no guilt, if the characters' actions merely are the reflexive results of their natures and their environments in any contingent situation, as Zola has it in his Preface? 

My answer is that Zola is wrong, just as Sam Harris is wrong. 

Our "illusion" of free will is not a false belief. It is a shared order of subjective reality every bit as real as  material cause and effect. We live significantly with we make out of free will. We cannot hold a coherent conception of ourselves without it. We build ordered societies out of it. We erect vast and towering intellectual structures out of it. We feel it in ourselves so deeply as to lie to ourselves in denying its reality, so deeply as to escape into unsustainable, attenuated, inhuman  abstraction in denying its reality. And so, similarly, Therese Raquin read without having read Zola's afterwards Preface undoubtedly leads to our understanding of lacerating guilt for crime as a predominant theme in it.

After all, finally, and always, "Never trust the teller, trust the tale."

Saturday, January 7, 2017

A Note On Charles Murray's Coming Apart


I just finished reading Charles Murray's Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960–2010

It was published in 2012,

Murray argues that elites now embody the "founding virtues," once attached to the American working class--religious faith, hard work, honesty and marriage. He says that a telling number of the white working class poor and the poor, about 30% of U.S. whites, have fallen away from these virtues and that they are crucial to what he calls the "American Project." 

The top 20% of whites, the top fifth, the best educated, with the best jobs, the highest incomes, have come on to the founding virtues. So, for Murray, at root, the great American inequality is cultural, and it's that that drives the other inequalities. 

So now, taking marriage for example, for the top 20%, Murray says the data show, divorce rates since the nineties have gone down, as has child bearing outside of marriage. But not so for the working poor and the poor: he says the data here show sky rocketing divorce, marital quality decrease and much higher unmarried child bearing. 

Same pattern for crime, religion and industriousness/work, according to Murray's data. 

While he's focused on white America, he argues that the data tell the same story for all of class riven America.

The American Project, he argues, depends on the strength of the founding virtues. Businesses flounder without industriousness. Correlatively the welfare state grows, which means the size and cost of government grows. With that, the key foundational premises of America, individual liberty, responsibility and self government shrink. 

Murray in answer to coming apart, among other things, exhorts the elite to preach what they embody, spread the word, so to say, rather than simply segregating and replicating themselves by their children absorbing the same virtues, getting better educations and jobs, and marrying amongst themselves.

For Murray, the failure to come together means coming more and more apart till the very bonds of consensus providing the social glue and legitimacy sustaining the nation will fray beyond repair.

While I see much that is telling in his argument, particularly the cultural diagnosis at its core, I find its conclusions faultily apocalyptic, his portrait unpersuasive as to the mass of Americans between the two book end quintiles. And, even if I'm wrong and Murray's dire vision is right, his central remedy of "preach what you practice" is, I think, pious, attenuated and a form of wishful thinking.

Friday, January 6, 2017

The Ending Of Lear

For me, the play ends in unabated gloom and negation. Nearly everyone is dead save for Albany, Edgar ands Kent, and he's soon to be done, at least according to him. Goneril, Regan, Cordelia, and Lear are toast as are Edmund and Gloucester. The good die, commingled in death with the louses, making it hard/impossible to see redemptive justice or indeed any justice at work. "Why should a dog, a horse, a rat, have life, / And thou no breath at all?” I argue there is nothing redemptive in Lear, only, as I say, unabated gloom and negation. Furthering the negation in  "No, no, no": “Thou’lt come no more, / Never, never, never, never, never.” (5.3.306–307). Lear dies with the slight, momentary fantasy that Cordelia will come back to life but that is but illusion, a false and harrowingly sad final hopelessness. For Edmund, Goneril and Regan, life only leads to twisted and perverse death that blasts what should be the bonds of family and love. The mass of death both on and off the stage at play's end evince only the tragedy of meaninglessness, a blank nihilistic vision of abject negation rooted in overweening evil married to cruel circumstance.


Thursday, January 5, 2017

What Means In King Lear "The Ripeness Is All"?


Ripening in womb a given here? Ripening in life is the acquisition of wisdom is how I take it. Lear journeyed from intemperate wrath to the wisdom of seeing how the world goes with no eyes. He followed the path set by Kent: 'See better Lear'. The eye  gouged Gloucester learned too see better without eyes. The ripening is akin to Hamlet's readiness. Lear's tragedy is that the new spiritual richness was ripped from him...without his ripening the tragic ending 


Is it ripening in a womb? Why? Going hence and coming hither, I've always thought might be bracket ends of birth and death with all of life as in between or might be separately or as lesser included the coming being and going of any particular moment. If any of those readings are possible where does ripeness--a peak of maturity, the peak of anything in relation to its best usage, something we typically think of for food that grows, a state before spoilage through aging past prime, and it also can suggest an overly rich pungency in the way the meaning of ripe in some instances blends in with over ripe--in any of these senses come into it? 

I had never thought of ripeness in the play as something like full or mature vision, the deepest seeing. And that has explicatory possibilities. I like it. But even with it, I have trouble inferring as a sheer matter of language the notion of the deepest vision from "ripeness," even as your reading does make sense of "is all." 

But a problem with this reading may be to ask: what is the spiritual richness Lear has gained? I would have thought it was the birth and growth in him of compassion, at feeling in himself the suffering of others. That would be a spiritual richness. But he has this before Cordelia is murdered. He is ready to go with her to some reclusive place and simply observe the folly and evil of court life from which they purposefully absent themselves. But then Cordelia is ripped from him, as you well say. And then he shouts to the universe, "No, no, no!" And what he experiences then, it's my view at least, is blasted negation. So what spiritual richness is this; and what does ripeness n any of its meanings, the deepest vision or a mature peak of something making it functionally prime or some other meaning, have to do with it? 

Now you may say I'm arguing on the basis of an idiosyncratic reading, and that's fair enough. But I can't see anything redemptive of the tragedy in what Lear finally understands or sees, if those words even are apt in describing the final mangled condition of his soul. I don't see ripeness as vision or as anytime else. I see only a broken, haunted, destroyed man. In a word, I see in him only nothing, only "No, no, no!" 

As for Hamlet's "the readiness is all," I wrote about that in what I wrote about Hamlet. But that's for another time and thread perhaps. Just to say, I don't see these "too alls" as much related.