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Travel-Writing, Chestertonian Style

I’ve never been much for travel reading–nonfiction travel reading, that is. (The travels of fictional characters are another matter.) Even this year, when I read two travel memoirs, my motives weren’t exactly pure. Winter Notes on Summer Impressions was written by Fyodor Dostoevsky. What I Saw in America was written by G.K. Chesterton. Yes. Clearly I read these books because of their intrinsic excellence and not because they are by two of my favorite authors.

Accurate travel writing is apparently difficult. Chesterton’s book was good overall, but little governmental tidbits that an Englishman wouldn’t know weakened some of his points. (For instance, in his treatment of the Civil War, he neglects to deal with the legal aspects of secession–which both sides would probably agree are more important than whether the South was a second Ireland.) Dostoevsky’s book told far more about his mindset than it did about the countries he visited. Chesterton could be accused of the same crime, but as his mindset was much more positive (as usual), he remained mostly accurate.

Dostoevsky: Catholics do lots of manipulative missionary work. Anglicans are pompous and won’t do anything at all. Englishmen are stuck up, in general: the French are irrational hypocrites. (Basically, if it’s not Russian, it stinks.)

On the bright side, some critics think that Winter Notes eventually morphed into Notes from Underground–another of Dostoevsky’s very happy books. (Actually, I thought the first half was darkly funny, but I have since been condemned for heartlessness. At any rate, Notes does not end very happily.)

Chesterton was much more generous. Americans don’t mean to be annoying; it’s just that their national spirit is on a permanent high. The English, apparently, have mood swings, and woe betide the American who shows up during one. Also, saying “It’s up to you” brands you as an American right away–or, at least, it did back in 1922. As does exaggerating.

One of the things I found most interesting was Chesterton’s attitude toward the presidency. This was Warren G. Harding’s era, in which the best thing about the president was his middle name. (Gamaliel, in case you’re wondering.) Yet Chesterton considered the American president to have the power of a medieval monarch. Medieval monarchs might have their powers somewhat curtailed, but nowhere near as curtailed as the power of the “king” of England in 1922–let alone today. Chesterton seemed to have little concern about the “imperial” behavior of the president. Most Americans would have an entirely different reaction to that sort of charge.

The real reason to read this book? Chesterton’s writing is punctuated with his characteristic flashes of  insight. “Generally speaking,” he wrote, “men are never so mean and false and hypocritical as when they are occupied in being impartial. They are performing the first and most typical of all the actions of the devil; they are claiming the throne of God.”

This, before the postmodernists deconstructed supposed modernist objectivity. Take that, Jaques Derrida. Chesterton wins.

 
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Posted by on July 31, 2014 in Nonfiction

 

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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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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.

 
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Posted by on October 3, 2013 in Classic Literature

 

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A Summer of Books

Someone asked me a few weeks ago if I would be reading much this summer. I was stunned at first. Finally I managed, “That’s like asking me if I am going to breathe much this summer.” I think my initial shock is probably the sign of a severe book addiction. My family would certainly agree.

My room is dominated by bookshelves. Four of them. There’s the little one that I’ve had since I was in "Bookshelf," Tom Rustebergelementary school, the heavy one with glass doors, and the two matching shelves that are six or seven feet high. There are also books on my chair, books on the floor, and books on the night table.

As of right now, I’m in the middle of It Was Good: Making Art to the Glory of God. It’s a fabulous book if you’re a Christian who is at all interested in the arts. It covers the biblical philosophy behind art, as well as an interview and chapters written by Christian artists. Also, it has pictures. (That is, color photographs, of artwork, in this case—unusual to find in a paperback book, especially one meant for adults.)

The book includes chapters that deal with theatre, music, and writing, but its focus is largely on the visual arts. I’m no artist, of course. Thankfully the book uses very little technical jargon. The book builds on some of the concepts outlined by Gene Edward Veith in his book State of the Arts.

As for the rest of the summer? A friend took it upon herself to get me addicted to the Les Misérables musical, so I’m hoping to read the book this summer. I need to finish The Iliad, which classes forced me to abandon. And I want to get into Dostoevsky.

Most likely, however, those books will get read very slowly. Having four bookshelves in your bedroom is wonderful. And their contents are a horrible distraction.

 
 

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