Category Archives: Classic Literature

Being Human

I was out walking the other day when a flash of color caught my eye. Stopping, I saw a monarch butterfly lying on the pavement, its wings quivering gently in the breeze. The butterfly was either dead or dying. As the wings continued to shudder, they moved enough for me to see that not all the yellow on that bit of pavement came from the butterfly’s wings. The creature had died on top of a cigarette butt.

Of course, the butterfly could have cared less. There are no wise elderly butterflies who, by their well-timed gasps of horror, can teach the young that it is not Nice to die on top of someone else’s trash. Only a human would consider that sort of things significant.

After all, that’s part of what humanness is about. We find the abstract concept of death horrible in a way that animals don’t. And so we ritualize it. We come up with “appropriate” ways to die. We are disturbed when things happen differently. Butterflies should not die on top of cigarettes.

William Faulkner’s novel As I Lay Dying examines some of these issues. A short synopsis of the novel: the Bundren family transports their wife and mother’s body to another town for burial. Only it’s a long trip. They get started late because the wildest son went off on a trip while his mother was dying. The body stinks. The weather is bad. The father, Anse, is self-righteous in the way only a thoroughly selfish man can be. The only really “good” member of the family, Cash, receives a debilitating injury because his wild brother wouldn’t put the coffin into the wagon according to his instructions. And there’s the reason that they went on the trip in the first place—the mother, Addie, wanted to show her dislike for her husband by requesting to be buried far away, with family members she hardly knew.

The family certainly puts out a lot of effort to follow her request. Their neighbors, however, and those they meet on the road, view the entire episode as ridiculous. The Bundrens have traded one ritual for another. In the end, their trip offers the most comfort to Anse Bundren, the person who—as the story turns out—least deserves it.

It’s easy enough, for Americans in general and some Protestants in particular, to argue against ritual. Rituals, so the story goes, keep people from being authentic and spontaneous. They stifle human expression and attempt to control human emotions. Faulkner’s story, however, shows another side to ritual. Humans are ritual creatures. We cannot be completely authentic and spontaneous. When we reject one ritual for the sake of “real expression,” we end up inventing another. The question isn’t whether the ritual in question is a ritual. The question is, What effect does this ritual have? Does it channel human emotion in healthy ways and guide human behavior in a worthy direction? Or does it damage those who follow it?

We ritualize death—and many other things. In the case of the Bundrens, they traded a healthy, well-tried ritual of death and burial for one of their own making. The new ritual—however “authentic”—justifies Anse’s self-righteousness, leads to Darl’s mental breakdown, and permanently injures Cash.

Ritual is unavoidable. Stupid rituals are optional. Sort of. (But that is a subject for another day.)


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When Characters Die

I’m not sure if there is a “normal” reaction to some deaths in literature. Take Franz Kafka’s story “The Metamorphosis.” For those who haven’t read it, the story is about a young man who wakes up one morning and finds that he has turned into a giant cockroach. Rejected by the family that he loves, the young man eventually dies from a combination of starvation, depression, and an untreated injury. I expected to be disgusted by the story. I did not expect that I would cry my eyes out at the young man’s (young cockroach’s?) death. I don’t normally cry over books, and I certainly didn’t think I would be sad for the world to be rid of a giant cockroach. But “The Metamorphosis” is really about abandonment, not cockroaches, and I can hardly imagine a more powerful way to picture that feeling.

Usually, however, my reaction to the death of even a favorite character is “Drat it.” Other reactions include anger (“Keeping Prim alive was the whole point of this stupid series!”), relief (“Whew, Boromir died decently and can’t mess up anything else”), and outright glee (“Macbeth is dead! Macbeth is dead!”).

Sometimes you spend an entire story anticipating death, but in most of those cases you feel prepared when the character in question actually kicks the bucket. Not so in Fyodor Dostoevsky’s novel Demons.

Yes, it’s a lovely title. Disclaimer: There are no actual demons in this book, but it is very useful for several reasons. Smart people will see “Dostoevsky” on the cover and drool. They may read it and benefit. Your relatives will see Demons on the cover and be disturbed. You can then educate them about literature. Paranormal romance lovers will see Demons on the cover and want to know if it’s like Twilight. Try convincing one that Demons was the first great work of Russian paranormal fiction. If you succeed, you get to snicker as they wade through 700 pages, looking for the next Edward Cullen.

Yes, it’s 700 pages. And somehow the plot doesn’t drag. Actually, Demons based on a real event. In 1869, a Russian student named Ivan Ivanov was murdered by a radical group of which he had once been a member. After the murderers were arrested, Dostoevsky followed their trial with interest. Eventually he based Demons on the murder. (The “demons,” incidentally, are the ideas that Dostoevsky believed were destroying Russia.)

The book is both the funniest and saddest Dostoevsky novel that I have read so far. The funniest, because I found myself laughing repeatedly at the awkward situations into which Dostoevsky sticks his characters. I can’t remember laughing at Crime and Punishment or The Idiot. But Demons is also the saddest. It’s just when the student is about to die that you most want him to live.

Good writing? Yes. But it’s more than that. The student in Demons comes across as one of the most human of Dostoevsky’s characters—flawed, yes. But with a capacity to love more than most. That’s the worst thing about his death, and about a lot of deaths in literature. If he had lived, what would he have become? Thanks to Dostoevsky (insert angry mumbling), we will never know.

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Posted by on May 27, 2014 in Classic Literature


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Dante for Lent

My failure to write for several weeks could be blamed on the fact that I’ve been writing papers for Lent. (All right, that isn’t true. Though the papers certainly have forced me to be more disciplined.) Actually, I began reading Dante for Lent. Two cantos a day–that’s the goal. I haven’t been as faithful as I should be, but, with any luck, and with a lot of catching up, I’ll have gotten through the Inferno (which I just finished) and Purgatorio by Easter. Then I can spend the first part of the Easter season reading the Paradisio. Three parts. One Comedy. And a lot of random Italians.

A friend tells me some people have nightmares from the Inferno. I didn’t even feel that disturbed until I had nearly reached the end–it’s hard to feel disturbed when you’re spending your time trying to figure out who Dante is talking about. It’s also a little amusing when Dante spends half his time in hell hunting down all the Italians. (The frozen lake scene is definitely gruesome.)

My main takeaway from the Inferno? Some sins are more serious than others, but they’re not always the ones you expect. And–secondly–lying is extremely serious. The deceivers are put into one of the lowest parts of hell. The scary thing, thinking on my own experience, is that liars frequently do not realize they are lying. The ones who have a serious problem lying end up believing themselves.

Screwtape made a remark about the “particular clarity that hell affords.” In a very non-Screwtapean sense, Dante’s damned people see things clearly. But it hasn’t changed most of them. Some of them bicker with each other, and Virgil has to scold Dante for staring.

On to Purgatorio, then. Dante has more to learn–as do I.


*For anyone who may be wondering, yes, Rod Dreher did instigate my decision to read Dante for Lent. But I didn’t want to start with the Purgatorio. Beginning The Lord of the Rings in the middle was one such experience too many.


Posted by on March 28, 2014 in Classic Literature


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Jekyll and Jesus: Thoughts About Lent

The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is one of those stories with a dramatic twist that most people already know before reading it. I hope that the original readers of the story were shocked by it, but very few people have been since. Probably a lot of people could give their opinion on Robert Louis Stevenson’s characterization of human nature without reading the story. I could have.

Regardless, the story still has a gothic horror quality. You might know how it will end, but the creepiness remains. Jekyll believes he’s found a way to separate his good impulses from his evil ones. With this ability, his real self will not be corrupted by the evil impulses that sometimes trouble him. Of course, he tragically fails.

Jekyll’s intentions are good to some extent–he wants to truly be the fine, upstanding person everyone thinks he is. But if I were to name a tragic flaw for Jekyll, it might almost be “impatience.” Jekyll wants to be good–now. So he takes what he thinks is the easy way out. And he destroys himself.

Why bother observing forty days of Lent? Well, maybe because we’re all a bit like Dr. Jekyll. We  believe we have a sin problem. We even want to do something about it. The problem is–we want it now.

Fortunately, none of us are capable of splitting our personalities. We are, however, capable of becoming impatient with ourselves, or, worse, with God. Why, we groan, can’t we just make a commitment or something and end the struggle?

The Lent season is about our struggle with sin. It is also about the life and death of Jesus Christ. And if there is one thing that we can learn from the life of Jesus Christ, it is that he was in for the long haul. No quick trip to earth, quick death, and quick resurrection. No. He spent about thirty years living in a particularly narrow-minded hometown, and the three years after that were hardly pleasant. His death may have been “quick” for a crucifixion, but crucifixions were never quick. And he didn’t rise again until three days later.

The author of Hebrews writes that Jesus can serve as our high priest precisely because he understands our struggles. His temptation in the wilderness was a particularly intense struggle, but it was not his only struggle. He was human. When death drew near, his instinct was to run away. Unlike us, he never sinned. But his temptations were more severe than most of ours. I expect he longed for them to be over with. So do we.

Jesus did not try to split his personality so that only one side could suffer temptation. Instead, he persevered. Dr. Jekyll wanted a way to avoid the battle within himself. Jesus faced his temptations head on.

To some extent, Lent is about patience. Easter seems a long way off (especially if you’re giving up something). Lent is also about courage–the courage to fight a battle with sin, although that battle seems unending. Yet there will be an end.

We await the Resurrection.


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Dostoevsky: When Mystery Takes Over

Someone told me about listening to an author discuss a book she had written some years before. The book was fairly well-received, but the author hasn’t written another one since. The reason: she based so much of the book on people and events from her life that she found herself bereft of anything more to write about.

I have some opinions on what that explanation suggests, although I’ll keep them to myself. In any case, the relationship of an author’s work to events in his own life is an interesting one. Some critics have made too much of the relationship–their evaluations of books are more like a detective’s evaluation of a crime scene than of a response to the book itself. The New Criticism sprung up in the middle decades of the twentieth century in an effort to oppose this tendency. New Critics emphasized that works of fiction are not authorial biographies. While some authors may put some of their own experiences into a book, others will not.

Flannery O’Connor, who was sympathetic to the New Criticism, is a prime example of why it can be dangerous to assume that an author’s works reflect something about his background. To read O’Connor’s stories, one might be tempted to think that she had suffered a violent childhood or something of the sort. She didn’t. Her life was not easy, but she did not usually build stories around real-life experiences. In fact, she became quite irritated when people sent her letters insisting that Georgia wasn’t filled with violent convicts that massacred innocent travelers. She hadn’t been insinuating that it was. All the letter writers had really told her was that they misunderstood her point.

480px-Vasily_Perov_-_Портрет_Ф.М.Достоевского_-_Google_Art_ProjectFyodor Dostoevsky is a different story, however, as I found after finishing The Idiot and Dostoevsky’s Wikipedia article. His novels aren’t autobiographical, but certain themes from his life keep showing up. Like Dostoevsky, the main character, Myshkin, suffers from epilepsy. A major character in The Idiot (as well as another character in Crime and Punishment) dies of consumption. So did Dostoevsky’s mother. Myshkin talks about a man condemned to death whose sentence was commuted to imprisonment just minutes before his execution. Dostoevsky–who had a taste for socialism in his younger years–went through that same experience.

Fortunately, Dostoevsky never crammed all his life experiences into one novel and subsequently lost his ability to write. But, however different his writing was from Flannery O’Connor’s, they both shared an important characteristic–a respect for mystery. In Dostoevsky’s case, that respect includes an understanding that, to quote The Idiot, “the causes of human actions are usually immeasurably more complex and varied than our subsequent explanations of them.”

Myshkin attempts to save Nastasya Filippovna, a woman that most people view as fallen. The church, he later notes, might forgive her, but society will not. But Myshkin’s innocent nature works against him. In his attempts to redeem her, he not only underestimates the volatility of her own nature, he fails to take into consideration another man who wants Nastasya Filippovna, no matter the cost to any of them. In trying to redeem Nastasya, Myshkin destroys himself.

“Beauty will save the world,” Myshkin asserts, to the bemusement of those around him. Myshkin is certainly better at seeing beauty than is the Russian society in which he finds himself. Yet his end is anything but beautiful. “For a long time,” wrote Alexander Solzhenitsyn, “it used to seem to me that this was a mere phrase. Just how could such a thing be possible? When had it ever happened in the bloodthirsty course of history that beauty had saved anyone from anything?”

Solzhenitsyn concluded that beauty might reach people who had rejected truth and goodness, the other two members of that old trinity. And something does reach out through the pages of The Idiot. There is a strange beauty in the mystery of Myshkin’s existence–however it ends. We are left with a conviction that he was more right than anyone around him understood. Whatever the problems that entangled him, Myshkin recognized the reality of transcendence. He was surrounded not only by bodies, but by souls. And he strove to value them.

Dostoevsky–epileptic or not–was not Myshkin. He made a number of mistakes in his personal life, and they were not caused by innocence. But perhaps he, like Solzhenitsyn, viewed Myshkin’s words as a prophecy. The ugliness of our best efforts may yet be turned around by mysteries beyond our ability to understand. We walk by faith, not by sight.


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“Notes” on Dostoevsky

Some books are so good that they leave you without very much to say. That was my initial reaction after reading Crime and Punishment. I loved the novel—loved it so much that I couldn’t talk very much about it. The Lord of the Rings will has not been displaced as my favorite story, but Dostoevsky has made it onto my list of favorite authors with one book. That is hard to do.

Fortunately, I just finished Dostoevsky’s (much shorter) novel, Notes from Underground, which left me more thoughtful than awed. My tongue is a bit freer now. Notes, which initiated the second, better, half of Dostoevsky’s writing career, reminded me of Crime and Punishment in some ways. Its narrator seems to suffer from a character defect similar to his successor Raskolnikov’s—living so completely in the world of theory that he misses truths that seem obvious to the rest of us. Raskolnikov, however, is not quite so oblivious as the narrator of Notes. He is capable of genuine compassion, and of having real relationships with other people. The “underground man” in Notes is not.

The underground man seems to have resigned himself to living in the world of theory, much as it frustrates him at times. From the safety of this world, he enjoys tearing other people’s ideas to shreds. Unfortunately, he doesn’t really have any ideas of his own to substitute for them. Raskolnikov, being more aware of the world around him, wants to put his theories into practice. And this is ultimately what gets him into trouble.

Had Raskolnikov left things where the underground man would have left them—merely arguing that superior men have a right to disregard the common understanding of ethics—he would never have gotten into the sort of trouble he did. Instead, he tried to test out his theory, to prove that he was indeed a superior sort of man. Of course, his theory proved defunct. In trying to prove himself superior by murdering the old pawnbroker, Raskolnikov only puts himself in the same category as the commonest, lowest sort of man. This realization is a shock to his system—a shock from which, thankfully, he does not recover.

The murder forces Raskolnikov to make a decision. Either he can destroy himself, or he must become an entirely different sort of man. Escaping the world of theory is not enough. Raskolnikov needs to escape something far closer and more deadly—himself.

The underground man concludes his story about Liza the prostitute with another insult to his audience. You’ve seen how bad I am, he says. But do you realize that my faults are in you, too? I may be the anti-hero—but you are not the heroes. The things you hate about my theories find expressions of their own inside you. “We have all lost touch with life, we all limp, each to a greater or lesser degree.”

So what is the solution? Multiple people try to argue with Raskolnikov, to change his mind in some way. Their persuasion has no effect on Raskolnikov. Logic does not sway him—he has logic of his own to counter it. His own emotions are so out of touch with the feelings of those around him that sentimental appeals barely register.

“The heart has its reasons of which reason knows nothing,” wrote Blaise Pascal. Ultimately, Raskolnikov’s repentance does not result from reasoning. Neither does it result from the usual understanding of emotion. Raskolnikov’s emotions are certainly engaged in his repentance, but he does not repent because he suddenly feels how horrible his actions were. Instead, Raskolnikov has to surrender everything–reason and emotions–to what he realizes is the truth.

How to escape the world of theory? Surrender to the truth that encompasses both our internal and external worlds. The underground man never surrendered. He preferred dragging everyone into the mud with him. But Raskolnikov, after his long struggle, decided that there was something more important than himself. He surrendered to the truth, and in prison he found a freedom greater than he had ever known.


Posted by on October 3, 2013 in Classic Literature


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Understanding China (and More)

Confucius (Tang Dynasty)History may be “my thing,” but Asian history is not. Something about the East was always difficult for me to understand. The worldview is just very different from anything that the West has experienced, at least for a very long time. There is something almost familiar about Islam or even the animist religions of Africa in comparison with Taoism or Hinduism.

Maybe I’m an oddity. But I’m inclined to think that I’m not the only one who finds Asia a little difficult to understand. No, having an alarm clock marked “Made in China” will not help you. But reading Confucius might.

I volunteer at the library weekly, and I have a bad habit of picking up very random books while shelving. I still wonder if the check-out librarian had any thought on my picking up The Aneid and young adult sci-fi at the same time. My latest find was The Analects of Confucius. It’s short. It’s witty. (It’s also a little hard to understand in places unless you have a good background in Chinese history. I don’t. I read the footnotes.) The Analects include little gems like these:

“Only girls and servants are hard to train. Draw near to them, they grow unruly; hold them off, they pay you with spite.”

“Tsai Wo said: ‘Were a man who loves told that there is a man in a well, would he go in after him?’ The Master said, ‘Why should he? A gentleman might be brought to the well, but not entrapped into it.’”

“[Confucius] did not eat sour or moldy rice, putrid fish, or tainted meat.”

“[Confucius] did not sleep like a corpse.”

“One said, ‘ To mete out good for evil, how were that?’ ‘And how would ye meet good?’ said the Master. ‘Meet evil with justice: meet good with good.’”

“The Master said, ‘Unruly when young, unmentioned as man, undying when old, spells good-for-nothing!’ and hit him on the leg with his staff.”

Granted, those are more the exception than the rule. (To be honest, I wouldn’t eat moldy rice either.) Confucius often sounds almost Christian when he talks. The Analects even include a version of the Golden Rule: do not do to others what you would not want them to do to you.

In high school I was taught that Asians emphasize the group, while Westerners emphasize the individual. It seems that Westerners often respond to that difference in one of two incorrect ways. Some people think that Asians are horrible to consider putting the group first. Meanwhile, the multiculturalists argue that all cultures are morally equal, and that Asians mainly need to be understood. Some may even claim to admire Confucius. But the values he taught (aside from the ones about leaving people in wells) would not be popular with most Americans, period.

I’m in no place to comment on Chinese culture as a whole. But one of the main themes of the Analects is that of respect. Not respect to other people’s ancestors; respect to your ancestors. Not just taking care of your parents (you take care of animals too, says Confucius), but honoring them with every decision you make. And courtesy toward others ought to characterize everything you do. Those aren’t popular themes today.

For some of us, they are difficult. How do you honor your parents when one or both of them does little that is worthy of respect? (Confucius: a son should keep his father from doing evil, and vice versa.) How do you respect ancestors when some of them did foolish or evil things? (Confucius: choose your heroes wisely.) In any case, we live in a culture where self-promotion is seen as highly important. A culture focused primarily on deference would have drawbacks, of course, but it sounds appealing, particularly to those of us who find self-promotion to be embarrassing at best.

The Analects also helped me understand another book: C.S. Lewis’s The Abolition of Man. Lewis write of the Tao, his word for the universal moral code that is the source of our value judgments. Even the relativists who argue against the Tao have to use some part of the Tao to make their arguments. We need special revelation, of course, because people can make evil choices based on the Tao. Its demand on duty to kin may be abstracted into extreme nationalism, for example. And there are contradictions between cultural perceptions of the Tao. (Most Christians and Jews would argue for getting the man out of the well, even if he was an idiot to climb in.)

But contradictions in the Tao—or, better yet, advances in it—are done within its parameters. “From within the Tao,” writes Lewis, “comes the only authority to modify the Tao…. Outside the Tao there is no ground for criticizing the Tao or anything else…. Wherever any precept of traditional morality is simply challenged to produce its credentials, as though the burden of proof lay on it, we have taken the wrong position…. Only those who are practicing the Tao understand it.”

If you want to understand China, Confucius is a good start. But if you want to understand traditional morality, you can start anywhere—Confucius or Aristotle or Moses or Christ. Whatever anyone may say about our need for the Tao, no one functions for very long without it.


Posted by on July 23, 2013 in Classic Literature


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