Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Dostoyevsky: Notes from Underground

Fyodor Dostoyevsky
Notes from Underground

I found that I had posted several entries about The Notes from Underground in association with other works, but I had never given this work its own posting.  So, I decided (being lazy) to gather together the various comments I had made to see if I could make something coherent about this very complex work.

The first part consists of an extended passage in which the underground man (UM) reveals himself. He is a civil servant who has come into a small inheritance and has retired. He is an outsider with no friends or relatives. He lives in isolation. He sneers at society, but at the same time longs to join them, to be one of them.  It is also a philosophical rant against those who think that human behavior will eventually be completely explainable and predictable by the immutable laws of science.  In addition the narrator contends that there are two types of people:  the doers and the thinkers or the intellectuals.   Everything that is accomplished is done by the doers, because the thinkers are paralyzed when they attempt to handle all the ramifications of acting.

The second part shows our reclusive narrator in action and supports both of the arguments put forth in the first part.  In the second part, the UM forces himself upon some former student acquaintances who are giving a going-away party for one of the students. The UM insists on attending the party, while mocking himself and eventually the others. He desires to be one with them, but actively works to make this impossible.

 The UM also meets a prostitute in the second part; the UM persuades Liza to escape from the life of a prostitute. However, when Liza appears at his apartment several days later, telling him that she wants to escape, he rejects her and sends her away.

This is one of Dostoyevsky's most unusual works.  It was while I was reading it, for the third or fourth time actually, that I began to see some similarities between Dostoyevsky's short novel and Poe's short story, "The Imp of the Perverse." "The Imp of the Perverse" is another of Poe's first person confessions--the individual attempts to explain why he committed his act from a jail cell, with a gallows outside awaiting him.

One of the similarities is the format: both begin with lectures on one or more topics which are of considerable length in comparison to the work which is then followed by an incident that exemplifies the topic(s) discussed in the first part. Poe's lecture is solely on the nature of perverseness in human behavior while Dostoyevsky's contains several themes, only one of which is perverseness.

One of Dostoyevsky's first examples of perverseness is that at times he is sick but doesn't go to the doctor out of spite. Who is he injuring--himself. He knows he should go because he is "only injuring [himself]...My liver is bad, well--- let it get worse." He is knowingly acting against his own best interests. Later he speaks of a "friend" of his:

"When he prepares for any undertaking this gentleman immediately explains to you, elegantly and clearly, exactly how he must act in accordance with the laws of reason and truth. What is more, he will talk to you with excitement and passion of the true normal interests of man; with irony he will upbraid the shortsighted fools who do not understand their own interests, nor the true significance of virtue; and within a quarter of of an hour, without any sudden outside provocation, but simply through something inside him which is stronger than all his interests, he will go off on quite a different tack--that is, act in direct opposition to what he has just been saying about himself, in opposition to the laws of reason, in opposition to his own advantage, in fact in opposition to everything..."

Poe advances a similar argument about perversity: "Through its promptings we act without comprehensible object; or, if this shall be understood as a contradiction in terms, we may so far modify the proposition as to say through its promptings we act, for the reason we should not."  In other words, we act  because we know we shouldn't.

Dostoyevsky here, like Poe, argues that humans will act at times in direct conflict with what they know to be their best interests.

Dostoyevsky postulates an advance in science which might provide accurate prediction of human behavior while Poe points out a combination of phrenology and metaphysics that attempts do the same. Both then attack the possibility of a completely accurate science of predicting human behavior.

Dostoyevsky says, "science itself will teach man that he never really had any caprice or will of his own, and that he himself is something of the nature of a piano key or the stop of an organ, and that there are , besides, things called the laws of nature; so that everything he does is not done by his willing it, but is done of itself, by the laws of nature. consequently we have only to discover these laws of nature, and man will not longer have to answer for his actions and life will become exceedingly easy for him. All human actions will then, of course, be tabulated according to these laws, mathematically, like tables of logarithms..."

And then, when complete rational harmony and prosperity is established, someone will stand up and say that we should "'kick over the whole show here and scatter rationalism to the winds' ... [and] he would be sure to find followers--such is the nature of man. And all that for the most foolish reason, which, one would think, was hardly worth mentioning; that is, that man everywhere and at all times, whoever he may be, has preferred to act as he chose and not in the least as his reason and advantage dictated."

Again, we do things simply for the sake of  being perverse or because we know we shouldn't.

A Side Note:

There are some subtle comic comments buried within the text. The UM seems such a humorless person in much of the work, I wonder if he understands what he says here.   

". . . I began to feel an irresistible urge to plunge into society.  To me plunging into society meant paying a visit to my office chief, Anton Antonych Setochkin.  He's the only lasting acquaintance I've made during my lifetime;  I too now marvel at this circumstance.  But even then I would visit him only when my dreams had reached such a degree of happiness that it was absolutely essential for me to embrace people and all humanity at once; for that reason I needed to have at least one person on hand who actually existed.  However, one could only call upon Anton Antonych on Tuesday (his receiving day); consequently, I always had to adjust the urge to embrace all humanity so that it occurred on Tuesday. . . .The host usually sat in his study on a leather couch in front of a table together with some gray-haired guest, a civil servant either from our office or another one.  I never saw more than two or three guests there, and they were always the same ones.  They talked about excise taxes, debates in the Senate, salaries, promotions, His Excellency and how to please him,  and so on and so forth. I had the patience to sit here like a fool next to these people for four hours or so; I listened without daring to say a word to them or even knowing what to talk about.   I sat there in a stupor; several times I broke into a sweat; I felt numbed by paralysis; but it was good and useful.  Upon returning home I would postpone for some time my desire to embrace all humanity."

 Is he being ironic?

Friday, January 23, 2015

Robert Grudin: the mind's blind spot


In the same way that our eyes have blind spots in space, our minds have blind spots in time;  areas of time which we habitually or congenitally ignore.  My own blind spot is the recent past, the events of yesterday or last week.  I experience things quite fully in the present; but then they submerge, not to reappear until they are images on the flat wall of the past.  Why is this so?  Is there something uncomfortable, raw, undigested, embarrassing about the jumble of experience just behind me?  Is it ignored simply because it is too chaotic to make sense?  Look at the past day, the past hour:  their interruptions, frivolities, compromises, false startsWe may well have good reason to overlook the immediate past, for the immediate past holds the uncensored truth of the present.

I have trouble remembering in the evening what I did that morning or afternoon.  This is why I write things down that I want to remember in a small notebook that I carry with me, wherever I go.  I call it my non-volatile memory.  Even this isn't 100% perfect for sometimes I write so hastily that I can't read my writing (too many years in school taking notes).

At other times I don't put enough information down, so when I do finally stumble across the note, I wonder what it means and why I wrote it.  For example, I will come across a note--find and email the name of the author of such-and-such book.  Unfortunately I didn't write down the name of the person I was doing the research for.

I suspect we forget a lot that happens recently because we consider it trivial and don't really focus on it long enough to be retained in memory.   Something happens and then something else happens that pushes it out of our mind, and so it goes, until a significant event occurs, which remains with us long enough to be retained. 

Any thoughts?

Do you have any mental blind spots? 

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam: Second Edition, Quatrain XXXVI

This is another quatrain that first appeared in the Second Edition.  FitzGerald then included it in the following three editions.

Second Edition:  Quatrain XXXVI

Earth could not answer: nor the Seas that mourn
In flowing Purple, of their Lord forlorn;
    Nor Heaven, with those eternal Signs reveal'd
And hidden by the sleeve of Night and Morn.

Fifth  Edition:  Quatrain XXXIII

Earth could not answer; nor the Seas that mourn
In flowing Purple, of their Lord forlorn;
    Nor rolling Heaven, with all his Signs reveal'd
And hidden by the sleeve of Night and Morn.

Aside from a punctuation change, the most significant change occurs in the third line.  The addition of "rolling" adds a sense of movement or change to Heaven, while the removal of "eternal" suggests that those "Signs reveal'd" are no longer eternal and may be changed.

To see what Earth, the Seas, and Heaven could not answer, we must go back to Quatrain  XXXIV to discover that in spite of all his efforts, the Poet/Narrator could not unravel "the Master-knot of Human Fate."  In other quatrains, he dismisses those who claim to have the answer.  None who have left us have ever returned to tell us.

One thought that has occurred to me is that the reference to Heaven may be a subtle way of referring to astrology.  The position of the stars and planets do change, and, therefore, the reading given by an astronomical chart on one viewing may be different on another night.  Just what is signified by the Earth and the Seas that mourn escapes me. In addition, just whom the Seas are mourning-- "In flowing Purple, of their Lord forlorn" -- is also obscure to me.

The main point of this quatrain seems to be that there is no answer to the puzzle of human fate, but this point has already been made in several earlier quatrains. (See Quatrains XXIX, XXX,  and XXXIV)  However, it must serve some purpose for FitzGerald left the quatrain in, with that modification in line three.

I must admit this quatrain is a puzzle. 

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Hermann Hesse: Demian

Hermann Hesse
trans.  Michael Roloff and Michael Lebeck
Bantam Books edition 

In an earlier post, Baltasar Gracian suggested that we can't tell a book by its cover.  After reading Hermann Hesse's Demian,  I wonder if we can tell a book by its title.   While Demian is in the novel, and a significant character, I think the main character is really Emil Sinclair.   In fact, inside the book, the title page reads Demian: The Story of Emil Sinclair's Youth.  Well, enough quibbling, let's get to the story.

Those who have read several works by Hesse will probably recognize the basic themes of growth, the loneliness of the one who doesn't fit in, and the setbacks and obstacles along the never-ending path to enlightenment.  Beyond the mountain range, the hero of Hesse's works always finds another range to climb.  And, death seems to be the only resting place.  Those familiar with Steppenwolf, Magister Ludi, Siddhartha, and Peter Caminzind among others will recognize this work.

Various stages in Emil Sinclair's growth:

Innocence:  Sinclair's Edenic existence at home as a child

Rude Awakening: Sinclair's first sin

Rescue and the beginning of his journey: Demian and a new way of viewing the biblical story of Cain and Abel

Debauchery and Sin:  Sinclair goes to a boarding school and discovers sin and alcohol

Redemption:  Beatrice  (see Dante)

A new mentor:  Pistorius
The Return:  Demian reappears

Following is what I consider to be the core of the novel. At one point, Sinclair decides:

"I did not exist to write poems, to preach or to paint, neither I nor anyone else.  All of that was incidental.  Each man had only one genuine vocation--to find the way to himself.  He might end up as poet or madman, as prophet or criminal--that was not his affair, ultimately it was of no concern.  His task was to discover his own destiny--not an arbitrary one--and live it out wholly and resolutely within himself.  Everything else was only a would-be existence, an attempt at evasion, a flight back to the ideas of the masses, conformity and fear of one's own inwardness.  The new vision rose up before me, glimpsed a hundred times, possibly even expressed  before but now experienced for the first time by me.  I was an experiment on the part of Nature, a gamble within the unknown, perhaps for a new purpose, perhaps for nothing , and my only task was to allow this game on the part of primeval depths to takes its course, to feel its will within me and make it wholly mine. That or nothing!"

Eastern thought is very strong in this work, as, actually, it is in many, if not most, of Hesse's works.  While I'm far, impossibly far, from being an expert in Eastern thought, I do have one strong objection here.  I see nothing wrong in the struggle for self-enlightenment, but the part that disturbs me is the acceptance of what appears to be one's destiny--"my only task was to allow this game on the part of primeval depths to takes its course, to feel its will within me and make it wholly mine."  In other words, this seems to be saying that if one discovers one's destiny is to be a murderer, then one should accept this and become the best murderer one can be.

I'm guess I'm too much of a Westerner to accept this.  I do feel that I have responsibility for my actions.   I may have only a limited control over my environment and the things that fate has in store for me, but I do have considerable control over my actions.  Many times I do have choices, choices beyond that of resignation and acquiescence to fate.  Sometimes acceptance may be the best choice, but not always.

And your thoughts?

Saturday, January 17, 2015

Gregory Benford: the last of the Anomalies

These are the last stories from Greg Benford's latest collection of short stories,  Anomalies.

"Gravity's Whispers"
A CETI Tale:   A scientist with LIGO (Laser Interferometer Gravitational Wave Observatory--a real institution sponsored by CalTech and MIT) has detected a gravity wave fluctuation and sent it to a mathematician to see if there's something there.  There is, but it's an artificial pattern, obviously created by someone?  And, there's a problem.  To be able to create a gravitational wave with a signal requires the ability to "sling around neutron stars and make them sing in code." Do we really want to open communication with a race so powerful?

"Ol' Gator"
 Evolution seems to be the focus of this strange little story.  It's a narrative told by a GI in Iraq.  He alternates between what's happening to him during the conflict with Saddam Hussein's troops and  memories of his childhood days in the South.  It was that part of Iraq that had been swampland and then partially drained that brought back those memories, for the crocs in the swamp reminded him of the gators back home and his grandpa's war with the patriarch of the swamp--Ol' Gator. 

At one point in the story the narrator is separated from his unit and finds a very large contingent of Iraqi insurgents headed his way.   However he finds he's not alone, for he has some very unusual companions.  Rather than spoil the fun, I'll just quote Loren Eiseley, the eminent anthropologist and essayist:  "The world is fixed, we say: fish in the sea, birds in the air. But in the mangrove swamps by the Niger, fish climb trees and ogle uneasy naturalists who try unsuccessfully to chase them back into the water. There are things still coming ashore."  from The Immense Journey

"The Champagne Award"
According to a Note provided by Benford, this is a satiric look at the government and population control.  As the general population seems unwilling or unable to control the birth rate, the government steps in with its own program.  People are issued KidCred cards which gives each person the right to bear a child.  They can use the credit themselves or can transfer it to someone else.  Or they could offer it in a lottery in which they get the proceeds.  That could turn out to be in the millions of dollars, if offered at the right time.  The parents of children born illegally, to those without KidCred or who have used up their KidCred, are fined heavily, and the children receive no social benefits and no education.  There is even some talk about prison sentences for those who bear children without KidCred.

Inter-dimensional travel.  As I think I mentioned in an earlier post, one common theme in SF is the time travel story in which there is an attempt to go back in time to prevent some great evil or catastrophe: assassinating Hitler is a favorite among writers. This story doesn't involve time travel but a different method of preventing some evil.

Set some time in the future, Warren has become rich and uses his wealth to bring his dream to fruition.  He has hated serial killers since he first learned of them as a teenager.  It's too late to do something about those in the world in the dimension in which he resides, so he decides to do something about those in worlds in other dimensions, especially those so "close" that there's only a very small difference between them and his world.

He has the people who work for him research these other worlds for those who appear to be the counterparts of serial killers in his world.  He decides to kill them, and to kill them before they've started killing.  In other words, Warren has decided on a pre-emptive strike, since these people have not yet harmed anyone.  There's a problem though, something Warren did not take into account, but he eventually encounters it.

The moral question one might consider is Warren's justification for killing these people: they haven't harmed anyone at the point he is to kill them.  Is this justifiable? 

"Doing Lennon"
This is another cryonics tale. It was written in 1975, some five years before John Lennon was killed in 1980.  Henry Fielding has chosen "the long sleep" before he really needed it.  When he awakes in the 22nd century, he claims to be John Lennon and that he was "fleeing political persecution."  This is why he used the alias.

In his real life, Henry Fielding had been a broker who had done quite well financially, along with surreptitiously dipping into several accounts belonging to others.  He was a devoted follower of the Beatles, collecting records, memorabilia, and gossip about them, as well as memorizing the lyrics to all of their songs.  On his vacations, he haunted Liverpool, picking up the local colour and accents and visiting places important to the Beatles legend. Now he was going to put all that knowledge to work. 

Things go well for a while for him in the future: his singing and guitar playing are accepted by all.  Then things get complicated.  First, he is told that the corpsicle of Paul McCartney has been discovered, and everybody is breathlessly awaiting their reunion.  Then, he discovers Henry Fielding the Real.  Who then is he?

Brief comments by Gregory Benford about each of the stories.

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Baltasar Gracian: Appearances

No. 130

Do, and exhibit your doing.  Things do not pass for what they are, but for what they seem: to have worth, and to know how to show it, is to be worth double; that which is not made apparent is as though it were not, for even justice is not venerated, unless it carry the face of justice; those who are fooled, outnumber those who are not: for it is sham that rules, and things are judged by what they look, even though most things are far different from what they appear; a good exterior is the best recommendation of the excellence of the interior.

-- Baltasar Gracian --
from The Art of Worldly Wisdom
trans. Martin Fischer

You can't tell a book by its cover.
Appearances can be deceiving.
All that glitters is not gold.

I suspect there are more of these aphorisms of conventional wisdom that warn us that things may not be what they seem to be.

What is frightening though is that even a good action has to take on the appearance of being good because most people are fooled by appearances--for it is sham that rules.  Therefore it's safe to commit bad acts as long as one can give it a good appearance, for that will fool most people.

We can see this today: many politicians insist they are patriots and that those who disagree with them aren't real Muricans! Real Muricans are those who are exactly like them.  Then they pass the most outrageous laws and shout that they are doing this to protect all Americans, to keep America on the one TRUE path, which only they are privy to.  They insist they are protecting the Constitution and yet, state courts and the Federal Supreme Court regularly declare their laws unconstitutional. In spite of this, voters don't see the truth and  obviously are convinced by that flag they wrap around themselves which covers the nastiness inside. 

External appearances appear to be more important than the internal reality.

Thursday, January 1, 2015

New Year Haiku

I'm stealing this idea from Stephen Penz, over at First Known When Lost.  I hope you don't mind, Stephen.   As Stephen pointed out, there are various ways of taking haiku, so here's a few more to play with.

On jolly New Year's Day
     My last year's bills drop in
          To pay their compliments
                       -- Anon --

A cheerful way to begin the New Year.  My credit card bills won't arrive for another week, so they are a bit more considerate.

Such a fine first dream.  .  .
   But they laughed at me.  .  . they said
             I had made it up
                                     -- Takuchi --

First dream of the year.  .  .
I kept it a dark secret.  .  .
       Smiling to myself
                -- Sho-u --

A sad first dream:  compassion?
A good first dream: congratulations?
A fine first dream:  envy?

Still .  .  . I guess this year too
     Will prove only so-so.
                      -- Issa --

Pessimistic?  Or, fear of offending the gods with high expectations.  Can't remember which one, but I read that in one culture, it is dangerous to talk about how well things are going because the gods are always listening.    I think there's one brand of Christianity, one of whose main tenets is that we are not down here to be happy.

Still, with all that in mind, I do wish you all


Note from Wikipedia entry:
"Traditionally, the contents of the dream would foretell the luck of the dreamer in the ensuing year. In Japan, the night of December 31 was often passed without sleeping, thus the hatsuyume was often the dream seen the night of January 1. This explains why January 2 (the day after the night of the "first dream") is known as Hatsuyume in the traditional Japanese calendar."
" . Since 1873, the Japanese New Year has been celebrated according to the Gregorian calendar, on January 1 of each year, New Year's Day."

 The haiku come from A Little Treasury of Haiku,  trans. by Peter Beilenson.