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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 2017-01-31 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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text 2016-02-21 15:11
Historical fiction, currently free!
The Russian Renaissance - Ian Kharitonov

http://www.amazon.com/dp/B004PLMJ3G

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review 2015-09-02 11:09
Corrupting the Official
The Inspector General - Nikolai Gogol,George Rapall Noyes,John Laurence Seymour

To start off I feel that suggesting that Gogol is a Russian would be a bit of an insult to the Ukrainians, especially at this point in time, since his biography indicates that his mother was Polish and the father was a Ukranian Cossack (and he also wrote in both Russian and Ukrainian, though no doubt the languages are little more than a dialect of each other – though I would not be running around Maiden Square screaming that at this point in time).

 

I did not realise that I would actually enjoy this play as much as I did before I started reading it, but within the first couple of pages I suddenly discovered that the theme that Gogol works with is a very common theme in a lot of modern comedies: the idea of the mistaken identity. This is similar to the idea that comes out of Shakespeare's A Comedy of Errors (which is included in the book in which I read this particular play) however the mistaken identity does not come about because of identical twins, but rather because a visitor to a small town is mistaken for a high official who is believed to be on his way to audit the town's books.

 

The play itself has been turned into a movie staring Danny Kaye (the video that I watched on Youtube has since been taken down):

 

The Inspector General - Danny Kaye

 

 

though there are a number of differences (both minor and major) between this film and the original play

(such as the main character, who is mistaken for the inspector general, becoming the new mayor to the town.)

(spoiler show)

One sort of wonders whether Gogol is actually being critical of the corrupt bureaucracy of the Russian Empire at the time (though it is interesting to note that even some of the most advanced states in the world are open to corruption, though sometimes the corruption is much more subtle). What we have is a bunch of corrupt officials who have effectively bought their way into office and by the strength of their wealth are able to remain entrenched in that position. However, they are then warned that an inspector general from St Petersburg is coming to perform an audit on the town's finances.

 

St Petersberg

 

 

This sends the council into a tailspin because, well, they know if the books are audited then they are going to get found out and are probably going to face the chopping block. However, when a low level government employee arrives in the town the council, who have no idea what this inspector general looks like, immediately mistake this guy for the general and begin to court (and bribe) him in an attempt to get him to turn a blind eye. Obviously, having all this food and money thrown at him (especially since he has none of his own) encourages him to keep up the charade (though when he is caught out he promptly disappears from the town).

 

I'm not all that sure if Gogol really meant to be very deep in this play because on the face of it it looks like your standard comedy, and one that works well. Further, this is one of those plays that could easily be lifted out of this current setting and placed in any other number of settings and it will still hold true (the movie places it in the Austro-hungarian empire, though it does get confusing with the suggestion that Napoleon is the emperor, when that was not the case). What it is also suggesting is that the central beauracracy is actually not all that corrupt because the people on the fringes fear their interference, and it is also suggested that corruption becomes more evident the further out you go, though in this modern world there are many that believe that corruption exists within our central halls of power and as you go out to the fringes, the corruption begins to diminish.

 

 

 

Source: www.goodreads.com/review/show/924922364
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