"What is this babbler trying to say?" Acts 17:18

Thursday, June 26, 2008

A Narrative Poem

The wonderful thing about knowing very little about literature is that one can, every now and then, have a totally new reading experience. This happened to me last week as I made the very drastic change from Dostoevsky to an early 19th century novel in verse. I have not in the past taken to poetry very much so it was with hesitation that I opened Walter Scott’s The Lady of the Lake; however, curiosity about other works by the author of Ivanhoe overcame my hesitation. Surprisingly, not only was it readable (unlike most poetry) it was enjoyable.

The story is set among the lochs of the Scottish highlands. A lost hunter is entertained at Loch Katrine by Ellen, daughter of the exiled James of Douglas. This stranger, who calls himself James Fitz-James, pursues his way after being refreshed but is so impressed with his hostess that a short time later he returns and proposes to Ellen. She refuses because she is having trouble enough with two other suitors: Roderick Dhu, the haughty chief of Clan-Alpine and Malcolm Graeme. These two become estranged as Roderick forces Clan-Alpine toward war against the lowland King James.

The disappointed Fitz-James, thought to be a spy of King James, is waylaid on his return from Ellen and fights Roderick Dhu in single combat. The fight goes well for Fitz-James who wounds Roderick and takes him prisoner. They proceed to Stirling Castle where King James is about to hold a festival. At the games of strength and skill held that day is Ellen’s father, the Douglas, come to surrender himself to King James and so somehow (I am a bit unclear how exactly) avert war for Clan-Alpine. Now suddenly, with both rebel leaders in captivity, King James can quell the rebellion of Clan-Alpine.

Hearing of her father’s capture and having the king’s signet ring in gift from the noble Fitz-James, Ellen goes to ask leniency for her father, Roderick Dhu, and Malcolm, (also a captive). Upon arriving at Stirling, Fitz-James leads her to the audience chamber of the King. Here:

On many a splendid garb she gazed,
Then turned bewildered and amazed,
For all stood bare; and in the room
Fitz-James alone wore cap and plume.
To him each lady’s look was lent,
On him each courier’s eye was bent;
Midst furs and silks and jewels sheen,
He stood, in simple Lincoln green,
The center of the glittering ring… (Canto VI. 731-39).

Yes, fair; the wandering poor Fitz-James
The fealty of Scotland claims.
To him thy woes, thy wishes bring;
He will redeem his signet ring.
Ask nought for Douglas; yester even
His prince and he have much forgiven (Canto VI. 753-58).

To Ellen’s plea for Roderick Dhu comes the news that he died from his battle wounds. Lastly, for Malcolm Graeme the King declares that justice must have its course:

Fetters and warder for the Graeme!
His chain of gold the king unstrung,
The links o’er Malcolm’s neck he flung,
Then gently drew the glittering band,
And laid the clasp on Ellen’s hand (Canto VI. 837-41).

The Lady of the Lake was a record-breaking bestseller in 1810. In the 8 months after its first publication it sold 25,000 copies, no small number by the standards of two hundred years ago (Pearson 89). According to a Walter Scott biography I perused in search of information (it unfortunately only had two pages on The Lady of the Lake), when one of Scott’s daughters was asked if she liked the poem she replied: “Oh, I have not read it! Papa says there’s nothing so bad for young people as reading bad poetry” (Pearson 88). If bad means not filled with obscure allusions to classical antiquity, not employing a succession of unknown and archaic words in every line, or not having a rhyme scheme so complicated the mind could not possibly remember its arrangement, then The Lady of the Lake is bad poetry. But these for me are the very things that make it readable. It may not be overly profound, but it is a good tale and who could ask for better than that? I replace it on my shelf knowing it won’t collect too much dust before it is taken down again.

Pearson, Hesketh. Walter Scott: His Life and Personality. The Quality Book Club, London.

Friday, June 20, 2008

Dostoevsky Again

My last post made me think of a much better book written by Fyodor Dostoevsky. The Brothers Karamazov is one of my favorite novels and definitely the best I have read from Russia. Dostoevsky’s penetrating insight into the fallen human soul and his ability to translate these insights onto paper with intensity is extraordinary. Many laud authors for their “subtle” portrayal of character; Dostoevsky, on the other hand, with honest directness unlayers his actors piece by piece, in an intensely suspenseful story of love and hate.

The story could easily have been broken into two or three separate full-length books. The whole history of Father Zossima, for instance, which spans his entire life yet is only a framework to contain his voluminous wisdom and sayings could be a separate study altogether. But before you turn away from such a long-winded and boring sounding book as The Brother Karamazov (a classic in the sense of “a book nobody reads anymore”) let me press that it is very good.

Yet even the word good must be qualified; this is no Sunday school story, no David kills Goliath and becomes king narrative. This is King David murdering Uriah to cover up his adulterous affair with Bathsheba, this is David faking insanity and hiding from Saul in caves. And so it is with the brothers Karamazov: Dmitri (Mitya), Ivan and Alyonsha. Each must confront the moral choices before them and sometimes stand and sometimes fall.

It would be impossible to condense the story. Some stories can be outlined in a page or a few minutes and that brief description might be as good or better than reading the full tale. C.S.Lewis calls such stories myths. He describes the other kind, those like The Brothers Karamozov, as being uniquely an author’s own: incapable, without loss, of being retold. If I sketch the outline of a morally degenerate father hated by his children, eventually murdered by one of them, contributing to the insanity of another, and imprisonment for a third, you will be rightly amazed that I esteem it so highly. Yet such is the case.

The plot is not what draws me to it, but rather Dostoevsky’s moving portrayal of character. Alyosha immediately draws the heart with his quiet shyness, aglow as it is with faith and hope. His brother Ivan is just the opposite: distrustful, pessimistic, at home in the world (as Alyosha is not) but without any real hope. Dmitri is a shifting cross between the two, at one moment able to reach mystic heights of benevolence, at another sinking to bitter, disgruntled agnosticism. His monologue (again, a standard feature in Dostoevsky’s writing) to Alyosha before his trial is an excellent example of this interior conflict. At one moment Dmitri pours out his climatic “hymn:”

Even there, in the mines, underground, I may find a human heart in another convict and murderer by my side, and I may make friends with him, for even there one may live and love and suffer. One may thaw and revive a frozen heart in that convict, one may wait upon him for years, and at last bring up from the dark depths of a lofty soul a feeling, suffering creature; one may bring forth an angel, create a hero! And then we men underground will sing from the bowls of the earth a glorious hymn to God, with whom is joy. Hail to God and his joy! (626).
Immediately after this speech he reverts to his original gloom:
It’s God that’s worrying me…What if He doesn’t exist? What if Rakitin’s right—that it’s an idea made up by men? Then if He doesn’t exist, man is the chief of the earth, of the universe. Magnificent! Only how is he going to be good without God? (626).
This is the Dmitri described by the prosecutor as, “two extremes at the same moment.”

Among the minor characters, those that don’t contribute to the main action, Zossima is significant. The author spends an incredible amount of time on this saint who adds little to the plot. I was reminded of the Bishop of Digne in Les Miserables. Even though they take little part in the drama, they both strongly influence those around them who do. My favorite, however, is the schoolboy Kolya. He is immature in his maturity, putting all childish things behind him except the fear of seeming childish. His character is fascinatingly depicted. He has a desperate desire for acceptance and admiration that is only too realistic. One way he tries to gain this is by talking about those ever-recurrent subjects: politics and religion.

‘Oh, I’ve nothing against God. Of course, God is only a hypothesis, but…I admit that he is needed…for the order of the universe and all that…and that if there were no God he would have to be invented,’ added Kolya, beginning to blush. He suddenly fancied that Alyosha might think he was trying to show off his knowledge and to prove he was “grown up.” ‘I haven’t the slightest desire to show off my knowledge to him,’ Kolya thought indignantly. And all of a sudden he felt horribly annoyed (584).

I must halt my rambling discourse or risk running on forever. Here is a quote that sums up the book:

‘And did you understand it?’ Alyosha asked.

‘Oh, yes, everything…that is…why do you suppose I shouldn’t understand it? There is a lot of nastiness in it, of course…. Of course I can understand that it is a philosophical novel and written to advocate an idea….’ Kolya was getting mixed up by now.

And so am I.

Dostoevsky, Fyodor The Brothers Karamazov. Trans. Constance Garnett. London, William Heinemann Ltd. 1945.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Unhappy Weakness For Russian Literature

He would sit like a post for six hours at a stretch, perspiring and straining his utmost to keep awake and smile. On reaching home he would groan…over their benefactor’s unhappy weakness for Russian literature (370-71).

Usually in our world things come to nothing, but this will end in something; it’s bound to, it’s bound to! (219).

The subject…who could make it out? It was a sort of description of certain impressions and reminiscences. But of what? And about what? Though the leading intellectuals of the province did their utmost during the first half of the reading, they could make nothing of it, and they listened to the second part simply out of politeness (486).

Maybe you can see where this is leading…. C.S.Lewis remarked that the plots of some stories in abstract “would be completely worthless—not only worthless as a representation of the book in question, but worthless in itself; dull beyond bearing; unreadable” (Lewis 41). Very likely someone will add that some stories themselves are dull beyond bearing. Though I want to agree, something makes me hesitantly demur in the case of Fyodor Dostoevsky’s novel The Possessed. Although the 700 hundred pages seem to go (in the words of one song) “on and on, forever,” there are occasional passages of gripping intensity.

But the merit of Dostoevsky's book would be small indeed if plot and narrative were the only criteria to judge it by. No, if it has merit it lies in other areas, particularly in its prophetic analysis of Communism and Nihilism. I am no philosopher so probably much of Dostoevsky’s exploration of the rising ideological trends in Russia at the end of the 19th century passed well above my head. Yet even admitting this there were some passages so plain they could not be missed.

Communism is scoffed at today and terms like McCarthyism applied to the occasional warning against it, yet Communism was (and still is) a huge disaster for humanity. Being already a fan of Alexander Solzhenitsyn, and through him knowing the inhuman practical reality of that ideology, I was fascinated to discover Dostoevsky, almost 50 years before the revolution in Russia, wrote a novel with the aim of exposing Communism in its infancy.

In the person of Pyotr Stepanovitch all the revolting aspects of nihilistic Communism are embodied. In a frantic, feverish speech (why do all Dostoevsky characters make long feverish speeches?) Pyotr Stepanovitch outlines his goals:

Everyone belongs to all and all to everyone. All are slaves and equal in their slavery…to begin with, the level of education, science, and talents is lowered. A high level of education and science is only possible for great intellects and they are not wanted. The great intellects have always seized the power and been despots. Great intellects cannot help being despots and they’ve always done more harm than good. They will be banished or put to death. Cicero will have his tongue cut out, Copernicus will have his eyes put out, Shakespeare will be stoned—that’s Shigalovism. Slaves are bound to be equal. There has never been either freedom or equality without despotism, but in the herd there is bound to be equality, and that’s Shigalovism! Ha ha ha! Do you think it strange? (424-25).

With a shockingly modern parallel in American society’s moral uncertainty and upheaval, one of Pyotr Stepanovitch’s co-conspirators confesses at the end of the book that,

it was with the idea of systematically destroying society and all principles; with the idea of nonplussing everyone…and then, when society was tottering, sick and out of joint, cynical and skeptical, though filled with an intense eagerness for self-preservation and for some guiding idea, suddenly to seize it in their hands, raising the standard of revolt (680).

With profound insight Dostoevsky has the social engineer Shigalov declare:

I am perplexed by my own data and my conclusion is a direct contradiction of the original idea with which I started. Starting from unlimited freedom, I arrive at unlimited despotism (409).

Dostoevsky, Feodor. The Possessed. The Modern Library Inc. Random House, 1963.

Lewis, C.S. An Experiment In Criticism. Cambridge Univ. Press, Cambridge. Canto ed. 2006.