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review 2017-03-13 02:15
The Death of Determinism
Notes from Underground - Fyodor Dostoyevsky,Richard Pevear,Larissa Volokhonsky

Honestly, I'm not really all that sure where to start with this story. I noticed that when I read it before I made a comment on how it can be pretty difficult to follow, but that is understandable considering it is written from the point of view of a man (which doesn't have a name by the way) looking back on his life and trying to understand the nature of existence – whether our fate is decided by us or whether we are masters of our own fate. Well, not really, though there are a number of elements in the story that explore the clash between determinism and existentialism, however the strong theme in my mind seems to be that while humanity desires a world in which there is no pain, for some reason they are not willing to make the steps necessarily to reach that world – in a sense humanity is addicted to suffering.

 

 

I have to admit that the narrator as a character isn't all that flattering. In fact I get the impression that he would fall into the category known as a 'homeless bum' (as well as the term an unreliable narrator). However, I feel a little uncomfortable using that term because it has the connotation of painting the homeless as being lazy, alcoholic, and basically responsible for the situation in which they have found themselves when in reality there are a lot of conflicting issues that drive them to that point. The interesting thing is that when we think of a 'homeless bum' we usually conjure up images of elderly people, usually always men, who are incredibly unkept, always drinking wine out of flasks (which in Australia is referred to as goon-juice), but ironically never begging. What is interesting is that we also tend to paint them with the image of being uneducated, and in a way illiterate because how could somebody who is educated willingly land up in such a situation.

 

I'm not really sure if this is the image that Dostoevsky is trying to instil into our mind, but then I come from the school of thought that suggests that a novel will take on its own meaning as time moves on. For instance Gulliver's Travels began as a writing of political satire which has morphed into a children's tale. While the nature of Notes from the Underground hasn't changed to that extent the nature of the narrator has, namely because the inference is that he is writing about his past, and about his existence, from the Underground. However, our immediate understanding of The Underground either has a political, or criminal, connotation. However my understanding is that the underground in which the narrator inhabits is neither political nor criminal, but rather outside of the social norm. In a sense our narrator, having realised that he is unable to exist in society, retreats from society and spends the rest of his life there.

 

The story is divided into two parts, with the first simply seeming to be a lot of incoherent ramblings, but in fact is the narrator attempting to understand the nature of the human condition. The second half is a story, or a thought experiment, were he looks back onto his past to a point in time that could be considered the turning point in his life. Here he meets up with some friends and immediately has an argument with them, and they leave him because, well, they have better things to do than argue with an irrational man – like going to a brothel. However he follows them but when he arrives at the brothel he discovers that they have already retired to their rooms, so instead he decides to spend some time with a prostitute named Liza.

 

This is where it gets pretty deep, or at least for Liza, namely because the narrator pretty much exposes the reality of the situation that she faces – she is young and has a commodity that she is able to sell, but there will come a time when that commodity will no longer have any real value, and she will find herself discarded on the proverbial trash heap. However, the narrator isn't some superhero that flies into the brothel to save Liza because when Liza tracks him down afterwards he basically tells her than he doesn't want anything to do with her and to get lost. He then has second thoughts but it is too late, and the book then ends.

 

This thought experiment, particularly the statements regarding prostitution, do bring about a reality of the profession. These days it is legal in a number of western countries, but legalisation of prostitution doesn't clean up the profession, it just exposes it to people that would not necessarily have gone down that road (and drives the illegal aspects much further underground, as well as opening up the truly desperate to much more violence than before legalisation). For instance, when it is a criminal offence, there are people that are unlikely to become prostitutes, however by legalising the profession it opens up another opportunity and they decide to take it up on that offer, only to discover that they have been tarred with the label of being a 'filthy prostitute' by the so called respectable members of society (who probably spend a fair amount of time in brothels themselves). I have spoken to a lot of people who have tried to defend the profession in that it is a legitimate business since if somebody loves sex why not work in a profession where they can have lots of sex. Well, that is all well and good, but the point isn't that they need to convince me because I work on the principle that if that is what they want to do then who am I to stop them, but rather that society still has a view on prostitutes, and unfortunately that view isn't all that nice. Further, there is also the question of the objectification of women, and the fact that it is really a profession that has have a limited shelf life because no matter how enlightened we are (or claim to be), when we go onto the dating sites we always look at the photos first and then go onto the description (if we even read it).

 

Let us then take this idea of suffering – this isn't the idea of if there is an all powerful and good God then why do we suffer, namely because Dostoevsky explores that in The Brothers Karamazov. Instead this is the idea that the main reason we do not move towards a utopia is because we, as humans, has this innate desire to suffer. It is like the idea that the hunt is actually more enjoyable than the kill, or the movie is more enjoyable than the ending. In a way we have this desire for a utopia without suffering, and while we want to get there, we drag our feet because there is something in us that wants to suffer, as if to be in pain actually gives us an identity. This isn't the concept that bad things happen because bad people make them happen, this is where we see an answer to the problem and then turn around and walk away because once we have found that answer the problem has been solved, and in a sense a part of us has now died.

 

 

This seems to have something to do with how the narrator fights with his friends, and also how he fights with Liza when she arrives at his apartment. In a sense, in speaking with Liza, he is not only offering her a way out, but he is also offering a way out for himself, yet in the intermediate time he begins to have second thoughts. In a sense it seems as if that empty part of him may be fulfilled, and to have that empty part filled, he ceases to be who he is, which is why he then proceeds to reject Liza. However, after she has left, he realises that the empty space is still there, and he wants it to be filled, and returns to his quest to fill it, only to discover that the opportunity has been lost, and has been lost forever. In a sense it is like the person who hates their job, but never does anything to change that position because of the belief of having any job is better than having no job, when in the end having a good job is much, much better than having a bad job. Still, the belief, in the end, is that there is no such thing as a good job so I might as well stick with this bad job than running the risk to getting a job that is even worse.

 

Finally, let us consider the nature of existentialism verses determinism. It was around this time that writers began to question the idea that we have a set place in the world that was determined by a higher power before we were born. Liza is a prostitute because it was decreed by God before time began that she would be a prostitute, and if she didn't like that then bully for her. However, existentialism effectively tells us not to blame God for what is in effect our life choices, which is why Liza decides to make the decision to leave the life of the prostitute and to strike off into a brave new world. This is the essence and that is the realisation that we have the ability to make a decision. In a sense it is that decision that we can make that moves us toward the utopia, though as Liza inadvertently discovered, while she has the power to make the decision, it does not necessarily mean that the decision is going to be plain sailing, or that she can easily cast off the shackles of her past.

Source: www.goodreads.com/review/show/1934760688
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review 2017-02-25 05:30
Is That It?
Mostly Harmless (Hitchhiker's Guide, #5) - Douglas Adams

I’m not really sure about this book. At first I was going to suggest that it didn’t have any point but then again this is a part of the Hitchhiker’s Guide series, which basically means that the books aren’t going to have a plot, or a point. Well, I guess the lack of a plot, and a point, is a point in and of itself because it simply goes to demonstrate the absurdity of existance, and that is that there really seems to be no point to this whole thing we call reality and in the end we should probably all just go and jump in the sea and go for a swim.

 

The thing is that this particular book didn’t seem to even explore the absurdity of reality, which, in a way, was the whole purpose of the series anyway – it seemed as if Adams had simply reached a point where he was writing a Hitchhiker’s Guide novel simply for the sake of such a novel, and when he finished it sent it to his publisher and then went around the corner and had a pint at the local pub (most likely English Ale, but then he could have had a Stella, but from my visits to England my impression was that respectable people don’t drink Stella).

 

So, what can I say about the book – well, it is about Arthur, and Ford, and Trillian, but that is about it. Arthur has lost his one true love due to a freak hyperspace accident, and the one thing that gave him meaning in life – a partner – was suddenly gone. So, he basically travels the universe bored out of his brains, and then settles on a planet to become a sandwich maker, which is basically the only thing he is good at. As for Ford, well, he uncovers a conspiracy at the Hitchhiker’s Guide headquarters, but then heads off to find Arthur only to have his ship stolen by a daughter that Arthur never knew he had, and can’t for the life of him ever remember making her, at least with the mother that is (who happens to be Trillian).

 

Trillian is the odd thing with the book – is she a journalist or is she an astrophysicist? At first I was a little confused because it seemed as if Adams had completely forgotten what her original profession was, but then it turns out that she got a lucky break, or a not so lucky break as the case may be. Apparently an alternate version of Trillian gave up astrophysics because she missed out on the ride of a life time when she rushed off to get her bag and Zaphod left without her. Then she missed out on another job of a lifetime when she left her bag in her room only to discover that she wasn’t wearing her contact lenses. However, as it comes to light, even if one does get the scoop of a lifetime it doesn’t mean that the newscasters will run with it, especially if they some something much more interesting – we’ve been visited by aliens, well, that’s going to clash with the royal wedding, and the royal wedding is so much more important than aliens that we might as well leave the aliens for another time, maybe a slow news week.

 

Then again when does news cease to be news – well quite quickly so it happens. If one alien spacecraft lands that is a scoop, but when the next, and the next, and then the next, it ceases to be news and simply becomes part and parcel of everyday life – a politician is corrupt! Hey, all politicians are corrupt so why are we going to run with that story when a baby hippo has just been born in the London Zoo (why is it that, having only spent less than a month out of my entire life in London that I am starting to treat London as if it is my home town? ).

 

What about the absurdity of life? I find it interesting that this whole concept of absurdity came about when people decided that religion just wasn’t for them – it is as if religion actually gives people a sense of worth and purpose and when you throw that away that sense of worth and purpose suddenly vanishes. Well, not really, because we begin to define ourselves by our possessions, which includes our jobs, our families, and of course our stuff. Yet what happens when all of these things cease to give us pleasure, or even purpose. No wonder the divorce rate is so high because we are measuring our worth by our happiness and when our relationships cease to make us happy we simply discard them. Mind you, the media doesn’t help because they help us define our purpose through the constant bombardment of their propoganda. What if our job doesn’t satisfy, and we aren’t agile enough to get ourselves another job – I guess we are a failure them.

 

Yet defining ourselves, and defining life and purpose, are huge money spinners. Self help books, universities, and even religious institutions, make bucket loads of money off of people seeking purpose, and sometimes I wonder if they all sit down at their weekly meetings and laugh about our stupidity. Mind you, our purpose could actually be sitting there staring us right in our face yet we would pretty much ignore it because, well, it is too simple and finding out the meaning of our existance couldn’t actually be that easy (or even simply that), so we all wander off back into the misty streets, find the local bar, and return to our beer.

Source: www.goodreads.com/review/show/1916966581
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review 2017-02-18 06:01
South American Revolutions
Tintin and the Picaros - Hergé

This is the last of the completed Tintin books and in a way does finally tie everything up. Granted, nobody ever lives happily ever after, but I do feel that it does round off and complete what I consider to be a ground breaking series of books that are incredibly funny and very entertaining. This album seems to follow on after the Castafiore Emerald as there are a few connections with the events in the previous album, however it appears that Flight 714 occurred between the two albums. Now while this is possible (as Bianca Castafiore is on a tour of Latin America that she began at the end of the Castafiore Emerald) I feel that the events of Flight 714 should probably come afterwards.

 

As mentioned, Bianca Castafiore, with her entourage, are traveling through Latin America and arrive at the fictional country of San Theodoros (the same country from The Broken Ear) and she and her entourage (which includes Thompson and Thomson) are arrested immediately after the concert on the grounds of participating in a conspiracy to overthrow the leader General Tapioca. What drags Tintin and his friends into the fray (other than the fact that their friends are in danger) is that General Tapioca is aware that prior to her tour, she had stayed with Captain Haddock and Tintin at Marlinspike, and that it was while they were there that the conspiracy was hatched. This is a very clever plot device Herge uses, which creates continuity in the albums. However, the story of Alcazar and San Theodoros has been sitting in the background since The Broken Ear, and it is only resolved here, at the end.

 

Herge does deal with alcoholism, particularly among native populations, in this album. We once again meet the Arumbaya and the white anthropologist who has decided to live with them. However, as a way to keep the native populations and the rebels suppressed, General Tapioca has been parachuting crates of alcohol into the jungles. This is important, and shows how skillful a storyteller Herge is, because right from the beginning Captain Haddock has suddenly lost his taste for alcohol. In fact, it is very amusing watching the Captain swear that he is being fed poison while everybody else is amazed at how wonderful the whiskey is. I won't mention what is going on because it will destroy a very subtle plot device.

 

This story is much greyer than many of the others because we have Tintin being involved in an attempted coup, however true to his character, he refuses to allow anybody to be killed, despite tradition being that after every revolution, the previous ruler and his inner circle are supposed to be killed. This is not always the case though, since many go into self imposed exile. We are see the dichotomy of the South American countries, as they fly into Tapiocapolis, they fly over a modern central business district, and then over the slums being patrolled by disinterested police. However, the catch is that after all has been said and done, when they are leaving, the fly back over the same slums, however the only difference is that the sign, instead of saying 'Viva Tapioca' it says 'Viva Alcazar'.

 

Sometimes I wonder why Alcazar is really Tintin's friend. He is not really the type of person that Tintin would really throw his lot in with. In the Broken Ear he was made Aide-de-Camp, however this was to enable him to complete his mission in locating the stolen fetish. Other times Alcazar seems to be more interested in other things, and in particular, in the Red Sea Sharks, is involved in shady business dealings with Dawson, one of Herge's villains. It is clear in this album though that Tintin has not come over to San Theodoros to put his friend back in power, but rather to rescue friends who have been locked up on bogus charges. Unfortunately, what is required is a change of government, so true to Tintin, he looks for a plan that will succeed with little, and preferably no, bloodshed.

Source: www.goodreads.com/review/show/285144499
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review 2017-01-31 10:09
As One Grows Older
The Double (Dover Thrift Editions) - Fyodor Dostoyevsky,Constance Garnett

One of the things that I have come to see that is a key ingredient of succeeding, not just in the modern world, but pretty much everywhere, is to be able to interact and socialise. The thing is that you could be one of the most brilliant minds out there but unless you are able to sell yourself, and your ideas, then unfortunately you probably aren't going to get anywhere. Sure, there are people out there who manage to get a 'lucky break' (and I believe Einstein was one of them) but the reality is that if you spend your life waiting for that break, you are probably never going to ever get it. In fact, you'll probably simply end up being little more than a footnote in history, though I have to admit that considering all of the people that have ever lived, more likely than not we are all going to be footnotes.

 

Anyway, the story is about a bureaucrat in the Russian Bureaucracy who is mid-ranking, but not so high up that he would be considered, or even welcomed into, the nobility (according to Wikipedia he is a titular counciler, which is rank 9 on the table of ranks). Looking at the tables it certainly seems that he isn't low ranking, but then again I would hardly call him high ranking either – it seems that he is at one of those ranks which provide a comfortable living, but not really have all that much infuence. The problem is that our hero is a bit of an anti-social character, but the doctor prescribes the solution of going to a party, however he ends up going to the wrong party, and after making an idiot of himself, gets kicked out. Actually, this almost sounds like the type of advise a clueless psychologist would offer.

 

This is where the bulk of the novel starts because on the way home he meets somebody who sort of looks like him, but is much younger, and much more dashing, than he is, to the point that everybody likes him, and our hero eventually goes insane and is dragged off to the mental asylum. This is the thing about new people, especially dashing and popular new people – they have the ability to take the attention away from us, and this has the effect of making us really, really jeolous. In fact I have known people who will work their way into the lives of new people, and either cosy up to them, or become a toxic leach, and they usually do this because, well, are are pretty insecure in and of themselves and are basically preventing themselves from having these dashing individuals come in and undermine their position (though of course their positions are generally all in their heads anyway).

 

It is interesting that Dostoyevski uses the idea of the double, or the Doppleganger, in this book, because the idea is that this person comes in and takes your place. This isn't the demonic creature, that basically kills you and then infiltrates your circle of friends, but rather a dark, rather human, aspect – it is the fear of becoming obsolete. In a way our protagonist sees a lot of himself in his double – maybe this is what he was like when he was much younger, but as he grows older, and his life begins to stagnate, this younger version of himself is coming into his life to take it away from him. Yet it is even more horrific when it seems that all of our friends are turning from us to this new person, yet we don't trust this new person – it is not that he is doing anything bad, it is just that our perception is that this person is dangerous, and we want everybody to see how dangerous this person actually is. The catch is that sometimes we might be right, otherwise we might be dead wrong.

 

Yet maybe it is just that psychological fear within us – is it the case that the older we get the more anti-social we become, or does it have more to do with the fact that the older we become, the more people we encounter that are not all that pleasant. In a way the more people that hurt us, the less trustworthy of people we become, and while it is all well and good to say that we should treat everybody like a blank slate, sometimes it isn't the easiest of things to do, especially if you are working in a position, such as a ticket inspector on public transport, that tends to bring out the worst in people. In fact, sometimes I wonder whether a ticket inspector would actually admit to people that they are ticket inspectors, or whether they just say that they work for the public transport authority in customer service?

 

Yet, it is one of those roles that seems to bring out the worst the people, that seems to attract the wrath and aggression of the community around you. Sure, that may also be the case with politicians, yet the thing is that they have this ability to be able to shield themselves from the world – the thing with most, if not all, politicians is that around half of the electorate didn't vote for them, and half of the electorate really doesn't like them. Is it also the case with police officers, but I'm sure there are countless numbers of occupations out there where all you tend to get is criticism as opposed to thanks and gratitude.

 

This, unfortunately, has its ability to wear one's character down, so no wonder our hero becomes ever more cynical and anti-social. In a way he is jealous of his double, namely because he does see himself in him, yet doesn't know how to break out of his own shell, and his own paranoia. In a way it is not that his double doesn't like him, or is trying to poison his world, but rather our hero is looking at him from the outside, wanting to be like him, to be accepted, but somehow failing immensely. Yet while we are watching the events unfold through the eyes of our hero, I can't help but think that maybe, just maybe, we are also in the position of the double – in the end it all comes down to attitude – the double succeeded because he didn't let the hero's hatred get to him, and simply got on with life, while the hero let his range and jealousy burn up inside of him until he snapped.

Source: www.goodreads.com/review/show/1891379393
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review 2017-01-21 03:35
Reminiscing on the Past and Reflecting on the Future
The Three Sisters - Anton Chekhov

 

Reading this play I got the impression that it was basically about a group of people sitting in a house talking about philosophy and pining for the good old days. As I have mentioned before, reading plays, especially if I have not seen them performed, can be a difficult task at best, and sometimes I have to read some two of three times to be able to follow them (though some of them I need to read only once – however Chekov does not fall into that category). Anyway, when I read the synopsis and theme on Wikipedia, I discovered that it was about a bunch of people in a house talking philosophy and pining about the good old days – oh and three of those people where sisters, which is why it is call The Three Sister (eh duh).

 

Anyway, I want to focus on three quotes from the play and write about what those quotes mean to me.

 

ANDREI: And you can sit in some huge restaurant in Moscow without knowing anyone, and no one knowing you; yet somehow you don't feel you don't belong there. Whereas here you know everybody, and everybody knows you, and yet you don't feel you belong here; you feel you don't belong at all. You're lonely and feel like a stranger.

 

The sisters actually grew up in Moscow and moved out to the country when they were young and through out the play they are pining for a return to Moscow (which never happens). I can very much relate to them because I personally understand the quote above. I grew up in Adelaide which, with a population of around 1.2 million people, is technically a city, but even then it has the attitude of a small country town. Basically you cannot wonder around Adelaide without running into people that you know.

 

It is okay if you are a friendly, personable person who has not made a huge amount of enemies, but having lived a rather wild life, that was not the case for me. As such in my last few years in Adelaide I found myself forever ducking and weaving, trying to avoid people that I did not want to run into. However, it is also like what Andrei says about – living in Adelaide was like sitting in a restaurant where you know everybody, and everybody knows you, and you feel as if you do not belong.

 

Then I moved to Melbourne. I may not have the best job in Melbourne, but at least it is not Adelaide. In a way, it is better to have a sucky job (at least in my opinion) and live in Melbourne, than to have a sucky job and live in Adelaide. Once again, as Andrei says, living in Melbourne is like sitting in a restaurant where you know nobody and nobody knows you, yet you feel as if you belong. Further, I am not ducking and weaving, hoping that I will not run into somebody that I don't want to run into. Mind you, getting the Adelaide mindset out of my mind still will take time, and I have made a few blunders while I am hear as well, but I still feel as if I can walk down the road with my head held high.

 

TUTZNBACH: All right then. After we're dead, people will fly around in balloons, the cut of their coats will be different, the sixth sense will be discovered and possibly even developed and used for all I know. But, I believe life itself will remain the same; it will still be difficult and full of mystery and full of happiness. And in a thousand years' time people will still be sighing and complaining “how hard this business of living is!” And they'll still be scared of death and unwilling to die just as they are now.

 

Here they are talking about the future and what the future may bring, and their discussion seems to be very insightful, at least what Tutznbach says. I look at the world around me and say that what Chekov said through Tutzenbach is right. Indeed technology has made things easier, and the cultural attitudes may have changed, but people still find life difficult and happiness fleeting. However, the interesting thing about happiness is that economists try to measure it, and they believe that happiness comes through owning stuff.

 

However that is not the case. I have lived in a big house, owned my dream car, and had stuff, but it did not make me happy. I even had a bucket load of friends, yet even with all of these friends I still felt very much alone. It is funny because now I don't own a car, live in a room in a share house (with some pretty good housemates), and don't really own lots of stuff, and while I have friends, I can't say it is the same as it was before, yet I don't feel alone and I can say that I am happy. I don't know what this move to Melbourne has done for me, because I can even walk into a sucky job with a smile on my face, and I am still trying to make my mind up whether I want to shoot for a higher paying, more intellectually stimulating job, or simply use this job as a way to have a steady income while saving my intellectual abilities for my hobbies outside of work.

 

I used to know a thing or two twenty-five years ago, but now I don't remember anything. Not a thing! Perhaps I'm not a man at all, but I just imagine that I've got hands and feet and a head. Perhaps I don't exist at all, and I only imagine that I'm walking around and eating and sleeping.

 

This seems to be the most existantialist statement that I have read so far in one of Chekov's plays. It seems as if the speaker of these words has grown old and lost touch with his identity. In a way it seems to be reflective of our society, as we discard the traditions of the past and move into a post-modern present where traditions are defined by individual preference. It seems as if we, as a people, have lost our identity, and as if our concept of culture is really only imaginary.

 

In fact the whole idea of our culture seems to be imaginary. Music and art seem to only exist for one purpose, and that is for making money. Art these days seems to evolve around advertising and marketing, as does music. Films are produced not on literary merit but on whether the return will outweigh the production costs. Our society, in a sense, is based entirely around consumerism, and any culture that seems to exist is not culture at all, but a farce. Even sport, with athletes earning millions of dollars, have seemed to have lost its cultural significance to simply only exist as a means to keep the population distracted.

 

Source: www.goodreads.com/review/show/731991206
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