The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoyevsky

“Alexey Fyodorovich Karamazov was the third son of Fyodor Pavlovich Karamazov, a landowner of our district, who became notorious in his own day (and is still remembered among us) because of his tragic and mysterious death, which occurred exactly thirteen years ago and which I shall relate in its proper place.”

What a marvellously mysterious first sentence which brings all sorts of questions to mind.  Why was the Karamazov father only remembered because of his horrific death?  What else did he do in life?  Why has the narrator waited thirteen years to tell the story?  And why does it need to be told in its “proper place”?

The Brothers Karamazov centers around three brothers, Dmitry, Ivan and Alyosha, each of whom appear to represent different aspects of human beliefs: sensual materialism, rational nihilism and faith.  Within the framework of their relationships with their father, Fyodor Pavlovich Karamazov a harsh and unyielding man, their characters are illuminated and these philosophies highlighted. In the case of Ivan Karamazov, his worldview has been formed through the legends and mystery plays of the Middle Ages, the Spanish Inquisition, and Christ’s return to earth and his temptations by Satan.  On the other hand, Dimitry Karamazov is wrapped in the atmosphere of the Hellenism of Schiller and the struggles of the Olympian gods with the dark forces that proceeded them.  Father Zosimas embodies the beliefs and rituals of the Eastern Church, and likewise Alyosha Karamazov his protégé, yet doubt creeps into Alyosha’s faith and is only overcome by his realization of earth being linked to heaven.

The author brings into relief the struggle of reconciling a just God with a fallen and depraved world.  With Ivan, we see a mutiny against a Christian ideology that allows free will to cause suffering, and with the speech of the Grand Inquisitor, even an indictment against Christ.  Father Zosima answers Ivan’s torment with his insistence on a faith in God being the only way to express an active love for humanity.  We see each character struggling to make a leap of faith in consequence of their actions, a putting aside of “self” for something greater, a struggle for each to interact with his conscience in spite of outside influences. 

Dostoyevsky’s notes for Chapter 5
of The Brothers Karamazov
source Wikipedia

With his sparse expository setting and minimal action, Dostoyevsky’s story unfolds mainly through his characters and their thoughts, their internal monologues often being more revealing than any physical action.  With great acumen, he examines the breakdown of a Russian family from a social-psychological level, which itself points to a breakdown of moral values of society as a whole and the consequences arising from this underlying issue.  Values within the construct of faith are what make a healthy society and without them, a sickness pervades, culminating in tragedy.

Reason is set against the intangible mystery of human behaviour and an inexorable conflict is evaluated as reason encounters Christian faith.  Dostoyevsky sets about illustrating the limitations of reason.  At the end of the novel, even though reason points to an inevitable conclusion, it does not allow the people in judgement to discover the truth, and its failure is effectively apparent.

Sketch of a Russian Village
Konstantin Alexseevich Korovin
source ArtUK

While the book is rife with questions about faith, strife, family disharmony and moral failings in a most human form, it also has echoes of positive aspects of life.  The monastery is a fortress of true faith and hope, and even the children in this story are able to overcome prejudices and act in a manner of love and reconciliation. Unlike some of his other novels, the author leaves us with a hope for humanity.

Dostoyevsky is a master of the psychological novel and I suspect that I still have not come close to penetrating the fascinating workings of his unique mind.  One finishes his novels, sits down to review them, and then wonders “where on earth do I start?”  The minute psychological details that embellish each character’s thoughts kept me in mental gymnastics from beginning to end.  His novels are not easy reads and the first read through it seems as if you only peal off a layer at a time, however the deeper that you slide into them, you find that they change you in a way that you never expected.

I’ve seen some reviews that express frustration with this book and Dostoyevsky’s treatment of the themes but I wonder if its presentation, to a certain extent, mirrors life with its disjointed narrative and its sometimes apparent dead ends which pick up later and lead to something revelatory.  The author presents mystery …. both the mystery of God and the mystery of human psychology —- and as 21st century intellectually influenced moderns, we simply have difficulty understanding this approach.  His works are certainly challenging, but as I sit with them and let Dostoyevsky’s narrative percolate within me, I know that I have much more to discover about, not only the novels but life itself.  I will, without a doubt, read this particular book again!

A View of the Solevyetski Monastery with its Founders
Saints. Zossim and Savatti
unknown artist
source ArtUK

Some favourite quotes:

We are responsible for everyone else in this world, apart from their sins.

” …. but first the period of human isolation will have to come to an end …….  the sort of isolation  that exists everywhere now, and especially in our age, but which hasn’t reached its final development …. For today everyone is still striving to keep his individuality as far apart as possible, everyone still wishes to experience the fullness of life in himself alone, and yet instead of achieving the fullness of life, all his efforts merely lead to the fullness of self-destruction, for instead of full self-realization they relapse into complete isolation.  For in our age all men are separated into self-contained units, everyone crawls into his own hole, and hides away everything he possesses, and ends up by keeping himself at a distance from people and keeping other people at a distance from him.  He accumulates riches by himself and thinks how strong he is now and how secure, and does not realize, madman that he is, that the more he accumulates the more deeply does he sink into self-destroying impotence.  For he is used to relying on himself alone and has separated himself as a self-contained unit from the whole.  He has trained his mind not to believe in the help of other people, in men and mankind, and is in constant fear of losing his money and the rights he has won for himself.  Everywhere today the mind of man has ceased, ironically, to understand that true security of the individual does not lie in isolated personal efforts but in general human solidarity …..  a man has to set an example at least once and draw his soul out of its isolation and work for some great act of human intercourse based on brotherly love, even if he is to be regarded as a saintly fool for his pains.  He has to do so that the great idea may not die ……”

I was quite surprised by the mysterious visitor’s revelation, as my thoughts had been percolating on the same ideas for a week or so before I read it.  Still in somewhat of a pensive, philosophical mood left over from my summer vacation, I wondered why we appear so engaged with people, when, if you truly gaze into people’s hearts, we are really very alone.  Why, when we think someone is suffering, do we feel sympathy for them and wish them well in our minds, yet walk away because we either do not have the time, or don’t honestly want to become involved in something that might require effort, or compassion, or sacrifice for someone other than ourselves?  We’re more connected with our work, or our possessions, or our own perceived needs than we are with people, blind to the personal connections and the deeper caring that will truly make us happy …. truly make us human.  It’s all very sad ….

“And what’s strange, what would be marvellous, is not that God should really exist; the marvel is that such an idea, the idea of the necessity of God, could enter the head of such a savage, vicious beast as man.” 


“Above all, don’t lie to yourself.  The man who lies to himself and listens to his own lie comes to a point that he cannot distinguish the truth within him, or around him, and so loses all respect for himself and for others.  And having no respect he ceases to love, and in order to occupy and distract himself without love he gives way to passions and coarse pleasures, and sinks to bestiality in his vices, all from continual lying to other men and to himself” 


“What is hell?  I maintain that it is the suffering of being unable to love.” 


“Be not forgetful of prayer.  Every time you pray, if your prayer is sincere, there will be new feeling and new meaning in it, which will give you fresh courage, and you will understand that prayer is an education.” 


“Life is paradise, and we are all in paradise, but we refuse to see it.” 


“Love is a teacher, but one must know how to acquire it, for it is difficult to acquire, it is dearly bought, by long work over a long time, for one ought to love not for a chance moment but for all time.  Anyone, even a wicked man, can love by chance.” 


“The awful thing is that beauty is mysterious as well as terrible.  God and the devil are fighting there and the battlefield is the heart of man.” 


“They have succeeded in accumulating a greater mass of objects, but the joy in the world has grown less.” 


“Love all God’s creation, both the whole and every grain of sand.  Love every leaf, every ray of light. Love the animals, love the plants, love each separate thing.  If thou love each thing, thou wilt perceive the mystery of God in all; and when once thou perceive this, thou wilt thenceforward grow every day to a fuller understanding of it; until thou come at last to love the whole world with a love that will then be all-embracing and universal.” 


“Love is such a priceless treasure that you can buy the whole world with it, and redeem not only your own but other people’s sins.  Go, and do not be afraid.”

Further Reading:
The Mantle of the Prophet, 1871-1881 by Joseph Frank

Seven Against Thebes by Aeschylus

“You citizens of Cadmus, he must speak home
that in the ship’s prow, watches the event
and guides the rudder, his eyes not drooped in sleep.”

Produced in 467 B.C. and winning first prize in the City Dionysia drama competition, this play is assumed to be the last of a trilogy of plays which dealt with the Oedipus cycle, the other two being called Laius, and Oedipus, both lost, as was the concluding satyr play, The Sphinx.  Driven mostly by dialogue, this play requires some background history to add some further insight.

Oedipus, king of Thebes, received exile for unwittingly killing his father and marrying his mother.  In return, he placed a curse on his sons, Eteocles and Polynices, that they should divide the nation, each ruling in alternate years. However, after the first year of rule, Eteocles, enjoying his prominence, refuses to relinquish the throne to his brother, causing Polynices to raise a foreign force of Argives, led by the famous “seven”, to regain his inheritance.  It is at this point that the play begins.

Eteocles & Polynices (1725-30)
Giovanni Battista Tiepolo
source Wikimedia Commons

Unlike Aeschylus’ earlier plays, The Persians and The Suppliant Maidens, which begin with a lyrical introduction, Eteocles begins this play with a dramatic patriotic rhetorical speech, appealing to the men of the city to take up arms and defend their honour against the Argives.  A messenger arrives announcing that the Argive army is ready to attack and the Theban army prepares to meet them.  Yet a litany of Theban women’s voices rise above the spectacle, invoking the gods for protection and lamenting the possible repercussions of the battle.  Eteocles loses his patience. These women are unnerving the populous with their pleas to gods and images of doom.  Heaven deliver him from women’s excesses!  And so begins an exchange between them, with Eteocles counselling practicality and proper, balanced emphasis on divine guidance, and the women accentuating the importance of invoking the gods favour. Eteocles demands silence, but the women continue to speak, quite astutely, with regard to the situation, until finally they obey his command.

The messenger enters, and so commences a trialogue between him, Eteocles and the Theban women, the former announcing the Argive heroes, and Eteocles proclaiming the Theban defenders, while the women laud their warriors and invoke divine favour.  Of course, the Argive warriors are the “Seven” against Thebes and each of these attackers has an emblem on his shield.  Curiously, the Argive attacker at the sixth gate, Amphiaraus, is counselling temperance to his leader, proclaiming murder if they continue.  He expects to die a prophet in the land.

Argive                  Attacker’s              Gate                 Theban 
Attacker               Emblem                                           Defender

Tydeus                 Moon &                 Proetid            Melanippus
                                 Stars

Capaneus            Naked man          Electra            Polyphontes
                                   w/ Torch

Eteoclus              Warrior                  Neïs                Megareus
                                climbing
                                 ladder

Hippomedon      Smoking                Onca                Hyperbius
                               Typhon                 Athena

Parthenopaeus Sphinx eating      North               Actor
                                 a Theban

Amphiaraus       None                      Homoloian     Lasthenes

Polyneices          Justice                   Seventh           Eteocles
                               restoring
                               Polyneices

From Eteocles, there is an impious and sacrilegious glory in war, and an obvious antipathy towards the gods, instead proclaiming a complete reliance on men and their ability.  Eteocles does not discount the gods, but does not place an importance on them.  With a curse upon his family, the gods have turned their back on him, and thus, he does likewise.  Now brother will fight against brother, the curse culminating through human choice, although they make it appear as though they have been stripped of their free will by the curse.  The chorus of Theban women have not ceased their beseeching:

“O dearest son of Oedipus, do not
be like in temper to this utterer
of dreadful sayings.  There are enough Cadmaeans
to grapple with the Argives:  such blood is expiable.
But for the blood of brothers mutually shed
there is no growing old of the pollution.”

In the psychology of Eteocles, he cannot escape his fate, in spite of the women pleading for him to use his free will to choose, horrified at his willingness to shed familial blood.  As Eteocles goes to face his destiny, the chorus of women seem to reevaluate its outlook, focusing on the curse as a lament of fate.  When the messenger returns with news of the battle, his proclamation can be of no surprise.  Brother has, in fact, slain brother, and the curse is brought to fruition.  Even though the city is saved, there is no celebration.  Instead, the bodies are carried in, followed by Antigone and Ismene, their sisters, their lamentations of shivering intensity.  The tragedy is a “double sorrow”.

Eteocles and Polyneices (1799)
Giovanni Silvagni
source Wikimedia Commons

Finally, a Herald arrives to announce an honourable burial for Eteocles, since he fought for his city, upholding his ancestors, but in contrast, Polyneices will be cast out to the dogs for bringing a foreign force to attack his city, casting dishonour on his head.  With great resolve, Antigone proclaims that in spite of the edict, she will give her brother a proper burial.  They banter back and forth, the Herald laying her further actions as her own responsibility.  In the end, the chorus divides, half to bury Polyneices, and the other half going the way of Justice.

Originally, The Seven Against Thebes ended with a melancholy mourning for the two brothers, but with the popularity of Sophocles’ Antigone, the ending was re-written fifty years after his death to make a smooth transition between the two plays. While the Seven Against Thebes is not considered as refined or as seamless as Aeschylus’ masterpiece, The Orestia, nevertheless, it contains many wonderful components to its structure.

The battle for the city of Thebes is also presented in Eurpides’ The Phoenician Women.

Translated by David Greene


The Suppliant Maidens by Aeschylus

“Zeus Protector, protect us with care,
From the subtle sand of the Nile delta
Our ship set sail …….”

Originally thought to be the earliest extant Greek tragedy, having been produced in 490 B.C., more recent evidence places it with a trilogy produced in 470 B.C., making it one of Aeschylus’ later plays. More primitive in style than The Persians, and using the archaic practice of having the protagonist as the chorus, it’s possible that Aeschylus kept it unseen for 20 years, but his motivation for this concealment would certainly be inexplicable.

The play begins with the chorus of the fifty daughters of Danaus, having recently landed in Argos after fleeing Egypt, pleading with Zeus for his favour.   In Homer’s, The Odyssey (Book IX), Zeus is referred to as the protector of suppliants, and in the maidens’ case, their Egyptian cousins have proposed marriage and, rather than submit, they chose to escape to the land of their ancestors.

“I sing suffering, shrieking,
Shrill and sad am weeping,
My life is dirges
And rich in lamentations,
Mine honour weeping …..”

As the maidens hold white olive branches over an altar, their father, Danaus, gives them instructions as to which gods to invoke for help for their protection. He muses that unwilling wives could not possibly be considered pure, and instructs his daughters to allow their behaviour to be guided by modesty.

Pelasgus, King of Argos, arrives with a contingent, and questions the strangers, remarking on their barbaric appearance.  Seeing the altar, his puzzlement is apparent as to their knowledge of Argive ways. The maidens reveal that they are of Argive ancestry, descendents of Io who had been seduced by Zeus, transformed into a cow to hide her from his wife Hera who sent a gadfly to torment her, and so she wandered into Egypt. (see Ovid’s Metamorphosis Book I)  In spite of the importance of kinship, Pelasgus hesitates, finally deciding to take this crucial question to the people (ah, a democracy!) in spite of the maidens’ pleas for his decision as king.

“You are not suppliants at my own hearth.
If the city stains the commonweal,
In common let the people work a cure.
But I would make no promises until
I share with all the citizens.”

Danaid
Auguste Rodin
source Wikiart

However, the question of the fate of these maidens is not so simple.  While they have no legal recourse to claim protection from the Argives, as suppliants they are invoking the protection of Zeus, and Pelasgus sympathizes with their plight.  But if he grants them shelter, Egypt is likely to declare war and can he justify the blood of his people shed for strangers?  His anxiety flows from his speeches.

“Alas! everywhere I’m gripped in strangle holds,
And like a swollen river evils flood;
Embarked on a sea of doom, uncrossed, abysmal,
Nowhere is anchorage.  If I leave
This debt unpaid, you’ve warned of pollution
That shall strike unerringly, but if
I stand before these walls, and bring the battle
To the very end against Egyptus’
Sons, wouldn’t that become a bitter waste —- “

Pelasgus returns to the city with Danaus to discover the people’s will, but soon Danaus returns with happy tidings:  the city has voted to protect the maidens with their lives, if necessary.  The suppliants offer prayers in favour of their honoured protectors until ships are spotted in the sea, and an herald of Egypt arrives on shore to bring them home.  If they resist, they risk their own blood and decapitation.  Thus begins an exchange between the herald and maidens that is a sparring of might and justice.  The maidens are not only struggling physically with their captors, but intellectually as well.

King Pelasgus finally arrives to offer support to the women in their resistance, accusing the stranger of insolence and irreverence, yet making it very clear that it is the maidens’ choice and if they don’t wish to go with their Egyptus cousins, he will protect them with all his resources.  The play ends with the exit of the Herald, and Pelasgus inviting the maidens into the city, but a threat of war still hangs like a shroud over the Argives.  However, the women are satisfied:

“Lord Zeus may he deprive us
Of an ill marriage
And a bad husband,
As Io was released from ill,
Protected by a healing hand,
Kind might did cure her. —

And strength may he assign us.
I am content if ill,
Is one-third my lot,
And justly, with my prayers,
Beside the saving arts of god,
To follow justice.”

To the maidens, prayers and justice are paramount when considering their freedom.

The Danaides (1903)
John William Waterhouse
source Wikipedia

While this play certainly appears more archaic than The Persians, on the other hand, it is more intricate due to the moral and political questions that are brought to the surface and wrestled with quite effectively by King Pelasgus.  It reminded me a little of Sophocles’ play, Antigone (which I haven’t reviewed yet, but will eventually) where there is a question of mortal or divine right over political or societal right.  Does Pelasgus risk war in his kingdom and possibly watch his own people die, all for fifty foreigners with a tenuous connection to the land?  Or is there a bigger question: is freedom and human dignity more important than life itself?  Are preserving the importance of these ideas something that go beyond our human existence?  It’s a powerful question and Aeschylus deals with it quite compellingly.

I quite like the presentation of King Pelagus, not as a powerful, dictatorial king, but as a leader who is truly concerned with what is best for his people.  His mental struggle is defined by his desire to make a just decision, not simply a lawful one.  Yet he doesn’t freely throw law out the window, and his impassioned agony of choice is very compelling as he resolves to defer to the will of the people.  Yet when the Egyptians land, he is strong in his stand for what has been legally decreed, and zealously defends the maidens’ personal decision.  His behaviour is parallel with King Theseus in Oedipus at Colonus where he is faced with a problem, struggles with it, yet despite possible negative ramifications, is determined to act in a just manner.

This play was somewhat difficult because of the translation, which in this case is not the translator’s fault, as it is simply in a form that does not translate well into English.  Whatever its perceived problems, this play held my rapt attention and has become one of my favourites in my growing list of Greek drama.

translated by S.G. Benardete

The Story of My Experiments With Truth by Mohandas K. Gandhi

“The Gandhis belong to the Bania caste and seem to have been originally grocers.”

Encouraged by friends and colleagues to share the history of his movement, Gandhi began his autobiography as weekly installments which were published in his journal, Navjivan, and also, Young India.  Writing in jail, Gandhi wanted to communicate spiritual and moral truth that he has discovered through personal experiments and he shares the impetus for his search:

“But one thing took deep root in me — the conviction that morality is the basis of things, and that truth is the substance of all morality.  Truth became my sole objective.  It began to grow in magnitude every day, and my definition of it also has been ever widening.”

As many other biographers have done, Gandhi begins his narrative with his childhood, sharing his many childish misdemeanors such as smoking, drinking, stealing, etc.  Married at the age of thirteen, Gandhi condemns this practice, characterizing his desire for his wife as lust, feeling in bondage to his passions, which he laters frees himself from:

” …… (I) realized that the wife is not the husband’s bondslave, but his companion and helpmate, and an equal partner in all his joys and sorrows —- as free as the husband to choose her own path ….”

Gandhi in South Africa
source Wikipedia

As a young man, Gandhi travelled to England to study to become a lawyer.  Upon returning to India, and being bored with his opportunities, he accepted the position of legal advisor on a large law suit in South Africa. With regard to his vocation, Gandhi had sharp insights, and with a moral bent, turned a perhaps mistrusted profession into a respected appointment:

“I realized that the true function of a lawyer was to unite parties riven asunder.  The lesson was so indelibly burnt into me that a large part of my time during the twenty years of my practice as a lawyer was occupied in bringing about private compromises of hundreds of cases.  I lost nothing thereby — not even money, certainly not my soul.”

“The symbol of a Court of justice is a pair of scales held evenly by an impartial and blind but sagacious woman.  Fate has purposely made her blind, in order that she may not judge a person from his exterior but from his intrinsic worth.”

In spite of being an unimposing figure, Gandhi’s greatness came not only from his desire for unity among people and serving the poor, but also his unique ability to see situations from a different perspective.  What the world would see as a weakness, Gandhi often saw as a strength:

“I must say that, beyond occasionally exposing me to laughter, my constitutional shyness has been no disadvantage whatever. In fact, I can see that, on the contrary, it has been all to my advantage.  My hesitancy in speech, which was once an annoyance, is now a pleasure.  Its greatest truth has been that it has taught me the economy of words.  I have naturally formed the habit of restraining my thoughts ……. Experience has taught me that silence is part of the spiritual discipline of a votary of truth ……..  My shyness has been in reality my shield and buckler.  It has allowed me to grow.  It has helped me in my discernment of truth.”


With his Christian and Muslim friends, he noted the differences, but instead of attempting to erase those differences, he chose to celebrate them, focusing on the positive aspects that those differences brought to light:

“Yet even differences prove helpful, where there is tolerance, charity and truth.”

His work in South Africa spanned decades, as he fought for the rights of the Indians there, after encountering race prejudice himself.  Many of his political views became entrenched with his South African experiences, and his religious views grew as well.  He became known for the employment of satyagraha, or non-violent protest and elucidates how it played out in his life.  The reader follows Gandhi through the Boer War and into World War I and his return to life in India.  He began to see the detriment of British colonial rule and worked hard to make his country ready for the independence that he foresaw.

His humility and his concern for his fellow-man resonate from the pages, his wisdom bringing unique insight.

“Man and his deed are two distinct things.  Whereas a good deed should call forth approbation and a wicked deed disapprobation, the doer of the deed, whether good or wicked always deserves respect or pity as the case may be.  ‘Hate the sin and not the sinner’ is a precept which, though easy enough to understand, is rarely practised, and that is why the poison of hatred spreads in the world …………. It is quite proper to resist and attack a system, but to resist and attack its author is tantamount to resisting and attacking oneself.  For we are all tarred with the same brush, and are children of one and the same Creator, and as such the divine powers within us are infinite.  To slight a single human being is to slight those divine powers, and thus to harm not only that being but with him the whole world.”

His desire for truth through the restoration of broken relationships and systems resonated throughout his work and his life.

What really spoke to me in this biography is that Gandhi, in spite of claiming a natural affinity with all races, also worked hard to develop traits within himself that would foster unity, empathy, patience and love towards others.  While it was a conviction within himself to cultivate positive behaviour, it was done with great effort and sometimes at a cost.  It is a tragic irony that Gandhi’s life came to and end with an act of violence, but perhaps the man himself would turn that perception on its head and simply say that it was further evidence of our need of the very thing which, at times, seems out of reach.  Yet as long as we are striving for peace, it is perhaps the striving that truly matters.

“I have found by experience that man makes his plans to be often upset by God, but, at the same time where the ultimate goal is the search of truth, no matter how a man’s plans are frustrated, the issue is never injurious and often better than anticipated.”

Notes from the Underground by Fyodor Dostoyevsky

“I am a sick man …….. I am an angry man.”

Notes from The Underground is the third book in my unannounced and (spur of the moment) Turgenev/ Chernyshevsky/ Dostoyevsky challenge.  After reading Turgenev’s novel Fathers and Sons, Nikolai Chernyshevsky wrote in response to it, his then politically persuasive novel, What Is To Be Done? , and in response to Chernyshevsky, Dostoyevsky wrote his powerful Notes from the Underground.  I assumed that it would be an interesting literary, political and philosophical conversation.

Dostoyevsky begins this book with a monologue from a retired 40-year-old civil servant, living in St. Petersburg.  He is our man from the Underground.  His ramblings appear to be disjointed, sometimes silly and then, disturbingly insightful.  But in this novel, is anything as it really appears?

” ….. doesn’t there, in fact, exist something that is dearer to almost every man than his own very best interests, or — not to violate logic — some best good …. which is more important and higher than any other good, and for the sake of which man is prepared if necessary to go against all the laws, against, that is, reason, honour, peace and quiet, prosperity — in short against all those fine and advantageous things — only to attain that primary, best good, which is dearer to him than all else? ….. to justify his logic he is prepared to distort the truth intentionally.”

The Soul of the Underground (1959)
Jean Dubuffet
source Wikiart

The Underground Man argues that perhaps science is not the highest good. The behaviour of man under the laws of nature and of reason does not confirm them; man has a perplexing innate inclination to destroy his own happiness and well-being.  One may argue that man needs to be brought into order, to conform to demands that will improve his life.   But what if man does not want that, and further, what makes one think that this is even good for man?

“Even if we assume it as a rule of logic, it may not be a law for all mankind at all …… And why are you so firmly and triumphantly certain that only what is normal and positive —- in short, only well-being —- is good?  After all, perhaps prosperity isn’t the only thing that pleases mankind, perhaps he is just as attracted to suffering.  Perhaps suffering is just as good for him as prosperity.”

Using historical examples, the Underground Man strengthens his argument. Man is beyond nature, and beyond reality; he is infinitely more complex than science, and therefore beyond the ability of science to completely understand him.

With his Underground Man, Dostoyevsky is attempting to shatter the philosophy seen in Nikolai Chernyshevsky’s, What is To Be Done?, a novel that promoted a type of monistic materialism brought about through a rational egoism: if only one used reason to discern the higher purpose of man, working through enlightened self-interest the perfect society would be created. Chernyshevsky’s dogmatic ideology excluded the possibility of “free will”, labelling it as a mistaken perception of what was simply a causal process. However Dostoyevsky, from his years in a prison camp, had continually witnessed the innate human desire to express individual free will, often to the person’s own detriment, and with his Underground Man, he strove to prove the ridiculousness of Chernyshevsky’s philosophy:

“all the beautiful systems, these theories of explaining his best interests to man ……. are nothing but sophistry.  Isn’t there something that is dearer to almost every man than his own very best interests, some best good which is more important and higher than any other good, and for the sake of which man is prepared, if necessary, to go against all the laws — that is against reason, honour, peace and quiet, prosperity — only to attain that primary, best good, which is dearer to him than all else?”

“One’s own free and unfettered volition, one’s own caprice, however wild, one’s own fancy, inflamed sometimes to the point of madness — that is the one best and greatest good, which is never taken into consideration because it will not fit into any classification, and the commission of which always sends all systems and theories to the devil.  Where did all the sages get the idea that a man’s desires must be normal and virtuous?  Why do they imagine that he must be normal and virtuous?  Why do they imagine that he must inevitably will what is reasonable and profitable?  What a man meeds is simply and solely independent volition, whatever that independence may cost and wherever it may lead.”

Underground Chud (1928)
Nicolas Roerich
source Wikiart

The second part of the novel, entitled “Falling Sleet”, tells of the experiences of the Undergound Man.  First, he is disrespected by an officer on the street who will not give way to him and the Underground Man plots a revenge of deliberately bumping into him.  The narrative then moves to the Underground Man’s presence at a party for old school mates and his contentious behaviour towards them, as he feels the strength his inadequacies in their presence. Finally, he falls into a type of relationship with a sympathetic prostitute named Liza.  In the Underground Man’s interactions with the outside world, the reader sees a man struggling to use his faculties to assimilate himself into the situations around him, and failing in his attempts. Dostoyevsky created a character who believed in Chernyshevsky’s ideals, but demonstrated through his actions, his inability to live up to them.

And so finishes my “trilogy” of conversation between these three authors.  I have been educated not only historically, but politically and philosophically, and encourage anyone who wants to read any of these books, to read the three in sequence.  With Chernyshevsky and Dostoyevsky particularly, you can sense the antagonism within their writing, yet their passion for their ideologies are very effective and make for enlightening reading.

Trilogy:

Further Reading:
Dostoyevsky: The Mantle of the Prophet by Joseph Frank

The Rule of Saint Benedict

“Listen carefully, my son, to the master’s instructions, and attend to them with the ear of your heart.”

Benedict of Nursia lived in Italy during the collapse of the Roman Empire and during his life, the empire was in constant battle with barbarian tribes.  Leaving his home in Nursia, in the region of Umbria during the reign of the barbarian king, Theodoric, Benedict arrived in Rome to attend school but, disgusted with the paganism and dissolution that he witnessed, he eschewed worldly cares, taking residence in a cave at Subiaco, thirty miles east of Rome.

Saint Benedict (circa 1437-1446)
Fra Angelico
source Wikipedia

During three years in his cave, Benedict became admired for his spiritual devotion, and when an abbot in a nearby monastery passed away, Benedict was convinced, against his inclination, to take his place.  But twice, monks envious of Benedict attempted to poison him, from which he was saved by miracles.  He eventually took some disciples and founded a monastery on the mountain above Cassino, located eighty miles south of Rome.  As his fame spread, even the great king of the Goths, Totila, sought out an audience with him.

Benedict called his Rule, “a little book for beginners,” and he covers such disciplines as obedience, humility, contemplation and living in community.  Yet he first introduces us to four types of monks, the cenobites (belonging to a monastery and serving under an abbot), the anchorites or hermits (having lived in a monastery for a long time and their zeal for the monastic life has cooled), the sarabites (detestable monks who have “a character as soft as lead”, and are captured by worldly delights, a law unto themselves), and gyrovagues (drifters who are captives to their own selfish desires).  His rule is to assist the first class of monks.

Some specific areas Benedict covers are church songs and readings, excommunication and re-entry, working hours and manual labour, personal gifts, community rank, etc.  The importance of humility was highly emphasized:

The Rules of Humility

  1. Keep the fear of God always before your eyes
  2. Love not your own will but the Lord’s
  3. Submit to your superior in obedience
  4. In obedience, submit to unjustice and difficulties with endurance
  5. Do not conceal (from the abbott) any sinful thought or wrongdoing
  6. Be content with low or menial treatment
  7. Admit with not only your tongue, but with your heart, of your inferiority
  8. Do only what is endorsed by common rule in the monatery
  9. Control your tongue and be silent unless asked a question
  10. Be not given to ready laughter
  11. Speak gently, seriously and with modesty
  12. Manifest humility in bearing, as well as in heart

There were a number of interesting revelations in the rule, which I found rather interesting.  Benedict states that the Lord usually reveals what is best to the younger monks, yet still the abbot has the final decision.  This is a fascinating merging of both older and younger wisdom in a hierarchical framework which is designed to work best for all parties.

Totila and St. Benedict (1400-10)
Spinello Aretino
source Wikipedia

While Benedict’s rule is, in many ways, strict, I was actually surprised at the flexibility within it.  There is grace for those who stumble and understanding of human weaknesses, as is evidenced by the description of abbots and their moral duties:

“……. He must hate faults but love the brothers.  When he must punish them, he should use prudence and avoid extremes; otherwise, by rubbing too hard to remove the rust, he may break the vessel.  He is to distrust his own frailty and remember not to crush the bruised reed.  By this we do not mean that he should allow faults to flourish, but rather, as we have already said, he should prune them away with prudence and love as he sees best for each individual. Let him strive to be loved rather than feared.”

Apparently prior to Benedict’s rule, the theological view was that each person was struggling towards God, and spiritual direction had a very personal aspect to it.  Benedict’s rule signified a turning point in perception, eventually making the process more regimented than personal.  The Rule has further reaching implications as well, being the forerunner to the rule of law and written constitutions, assisting in the shaping of medieval ideas.

Benedict’s abbey at Monte Cassino was severely damaged by Allied bombing during World War II, having to be rebuilt afterwards.  A bit of trivia:  author Walter J. Miller was part of the bombing raids on Monte Cassino and was severely affected by them.  His dystopian book A Canticle for Leibowitz has echoes of both the monastery and his struggles to come to terms with his part in its destruction.  It’s a great book, if anyone is looking for a recommendation.

Rebuilt abbey of Monte Cassino
source Wikimedia Commons

Mein Kampf by Adolf Hilter

“Today I consider it my good fortune that Fate designated Braunau on the Inn as the place of my birth.”

Written in 1925, Hitler crafted his biography while serving time in a German prison for his political crimes during his Putsch, or coup attempt of the Nazi party, in November 1923. Apparently he wanted to title his work Viereinhalb Jahre (des Kampes) gegen Lüge, Dummheit und Feigheit, or Four and a Half Years (of Struggle) Against Lies, Stupidity and Cowardice.  His publisher wisely got him to shorten the title to Mein Kampf (My Struggle).

Hitler first covers the period of his childhood, and then moves to his years in Vienna, where he initially aspired to be an artist, but after a number of discouragements, began to focus more on the political sphere of the city.  As early as chapter 3, we see that certain aspects of his ideology are already strongly rooted:

Chapter 3

  • No man should take an active part in politics before 30
  • Leaders who change their mind or admit their previously held views to be wrong, give up their leadership qualities and become political “bedbugs” who hang onto their positions only for personal gain, seeing every new movement or every man greater than themselves as a threat.
  • The German-Austrian is the only person who has benefited Austria in various social and political settings — he also disparages Negros in this diatribe
  • Social Democracy contributed to the de-Germanization of the State of Austria
  • the Austrian parliament is undignified because all the political members do not speak German, “a gesticulating mass, speaking in all keys.”
  • Democracy of the West forsters Marxism and is a universal plague
  • Regrets that with the parliamentary system, that no one is held responsible for any decisions

The Alter Hof in Munich (1914)
Adolf Hitler
source Wikipedia

After Chapter 3, I gave up my note taking.  Hitler is, if nothing else, repetitive, and his increasing virulent hatred towards anyone or anything Jewish, was hard to stomach.  It was educational to learn that his anti-Semitism was shared by others at the time, and he was influenced by anti-Semitic organizations.  Much of his book is a thesis against them, with Hitler providing supporting evidence for the Jews being dirty, liars, sneaky, dishonest, culturally bankrupt, dangerous, avaricious, etc.  They were, in effect, social parasites and, in Hitler’s eyes, entirely expendable.  In fact, he felt the superior races duty-bound to rid the world of their inferior presence.

As for political ideologies, Hitler eschewed both Marxism, which he saw as a tool of the Jews, and Socialism.  For him, the democracy of the West was actually the forerunner of Marxism.  Yet Hitler invented his own style of Democracy.  The “true German democracy” consists of one leader who “take(s) over fully all responsibility for what he does or does not do.  There will be no voting by a majority on single questions, but only the decision of the individual who backs it with his life and all he has.”  Rather scary, don’t you think?  One perfect individual, perhaps? Who would judge this individual?  Who would hold him accountable?  A recipe for disaster, I’d say.

Learning from other statesmen, whom he admired, Hitler strove to give Germany an ideology that the common people would ascribe to and be willing to defend to the death.  Hitler himself said, Every attempt at fighting a view of life by means of force will finally fail, unless the fight against it represents the form of an attack for the sake of a new spiritual direction.  Only in the struggle of two views of life with each other can the weapon of brute force, used continuously and ruthlessly, bring about the decision in favor of the side it supports.”

Hitler as a soldier during WWI
source Wikipedia

Of Hitler’s participation in World War I, my book’s notes have the following to say:  “Concerning his military record, the following facts are known; that he served as a messenger between regimental headquarters and the the front; that he was a good soldier who refused to the very end to join in criticism of the way things were being run; that his temperament made his commanding officer doubt the wisdom of promoting him to any sort of non-commissioned rank above that of corporal; and that he occupies a modest but honorable place in the history of the Regiment List, to which he belonged.  The particular exploit for which he received the Iron Cross is shrouded in secrecy, but most biogrpahers agree that there was no reason why it should have been awarded.”

There is a interesting chapter on war propaganda ….. how it has been used effectively and ineffectively and Hitler’s proposed fine-tuning of it.  He felt that during WWI, the German methods were simply too sophisticated and failed to concentrate on appealing to popular emotion.  Hitler believed that the most important tactic was to ascertain what would invoke the support of the masses.

On Nation and Race, Hitler observed that no other animal in nature cross mates; finches mate with finches, foxes with foxes, etc. so therefore why should humans?  Cross mating simply weakens the race.  Once he sorted out the races, he turned to Darwin’s “survival of the fittest” ideology, in that the stronger weed out the weaker (ie. kill them), until the strongest is on top.  It’s quite bizarre logic, because Germany lost WWI and therefore should have been considered the weaker race, but Hitler has a myriad of excuses for their loss.

Munich Marienplatz during the Beer Hall Putsch
source Wikipedia

The book also gives a chilling account of how ordinary people can get caught up in evil.  Of Hitler’s putsch of 1923 (his attempt to seize power in Munich), my book’s notes say, “The Hitler putsch of 1923 made the (Nazi) Party more popular in the city than it had been before.  When the Nazis drove dissenters — or imaginary dissenters —- from their meetings with cudgels, their audiences grew larger.  Few people in Germany were at the bottom anti-Semitic, but the joy large number felt in promises of blood curdling treatment to be meted out to the helpless minority made them responsive to the suggestion.  Smashing windows and street fighting were relied upon to win the crowd.  The propagandists encouraged them all.  ‘We shall reach our goal,’ declared Goebbels, ‘when we have the courage to laugh as we destroy, as we smash, whatever was sacred to us as tradition, as education, as friendship and as human affection.’  In the Vienna of March, 1938, ordinary citizens who had hitherto gone about peacefully, confessed to a strange delight in the sufferings visited upon the Jewish group.”  This description was one of the most chilling parts of the book for me.  I cannot imagine human beings, not only wanting to enact such suffering on others, but enjoying it as well.

I started this read this biography, with great anticipation, hoping to gain some insight into the mind of one of the most villainous characters in modern history. Yet, as I read, I soon realized that it was going to be difficult to understand someone who was mad, if you are not mad yourself.  The narrative became a strange compilation of rather astute and insightful commentary, often hidden and mixed in amongst his mad ravings and bizarre ideas.  Hitler makes mostly nonsense, but with a sprinkling of rather astute sense, the combination making some of his accounts strangely compelling.  It’s rather alarming.  Yet his rambling diatribes and racist invective soon began to become wearing and while I didn’t fall asleep like Ruth, I quickly developed a distaste for much of what he had to say.  As an historical document, it was moderately interesting, but as for my attempt for a personal connection with Hitler, that was a complete fail.  And I must say, that it was a very pleasant fail.  Personally, I was very glad to say goodbye to Adolf Hitler.

With regard to the translation of my edition, it is an annotated and unexpurgated edition sponsored by a number of people including Albert Einstein, Thomas Mann, Theodore Roosevelt, Jr., and Edna St. Vincent Millay. Published in 1939, after the First World War, yet just at the beginning of the second one, the perspective it offers with regard to the annotations is indeed a unique one, and very valuable to understanding the mindset of the times.  I cannot see an official translator noted, but it is published by Houghton Mifflin, in case anyone wants to search it out.

What is to Be Done? by Nikolai Chernyshevsky

“On the morning of July 11, 1856, the staff of one of the large hotels near the Moscow Railway Station in Petersburg was in a quandary, almost in a state of distress.”

What do Chernyshevsky, Nietzsche and Star Trek all have in common? They all believe in socialist Utopias, in that if we all just could see the higher purpose of man and allow our characters to be developed beyond the animalistic tendencies of greed and selfishness and jealousy, we would all be able to lead this idealistic life with money, freedom, happiness and, in Nietzsche’s case, right-thinking for all. Everyone would get exactly what they wanted in all things, and gratification and joy would abound everywhere.  And this would all come in an erupting revolution that would change the world as we know it. Sounds good, doesn’t it?  Except that there’s one catch.  In all of history, men have never been able to shed all strife and avarice and enmity towards each other.  We have never been able to only do good, love mercy and walk humbly.  So how these people can expect this to happen in the rumblings of revolution, yet also in an easily perceived development of social change, is quite beyond me.  “Delusional”is the word that springs first to mind.

The Young Seamstress
Jean-Francois Millet
source Wikiart

In Chernyshevsky’s, What Is To Be Done?, Véra Pálovna is a sheltered young woman with a strident, lower class, controlling mother.  Her mother tries to manipulate her with her machinations, but Véra, with stern self command unusual for her age and sex, manages to best her mother and ends up marrying a medical student and tutor, Dmítry Sergéich Lopukhóv, to escape her mother’s nagging domination.  While married to Lopukhóv, she starts her own sewing business, employing unusual business acumen to make it a success.  Likewise, her marriage is run in an unusual business-like way, to the apparent delight of both. Yet when their close friend, another medical student, Alexánder Matvéich Kirsánov, begins to form an attraction to Véra, an impending tragedy culminates, and finalizes in a most unexpected way.

Although What Is To Be Done? is almost unknown in classic fiction, among Russians it was considered one of the most influential books of nineteenth-century Russia for the ramification it had on human thought, and the effect it had on the history of the country.

Nikolai Gavrilovich Chernyshevsky was a staunch proponent of materialist philosophy, socialist political economy, and women’s liberation.  In his novel, he attempted to provide a remedy for all the social ills and the dilemmas that faced Russian society, believing that the controlling patriarchal hierarchy of the family, social inequality, and political and social problems were the main causes of the tyrannical, unbalanced, economic backwardness of the society. He disliked modern reform, advocating more radical steps.  Offering a blend of Russian traditional values, and ideas from Western Europe, he called for a social education that would bring sexual freedom, self-awareness, and prosperity.  However, his self-righteousness and intolerance of criticism eventually caused him to be barred from academia, and Chernyshevsky was forced to turn to journalism for an outlet.  His views eventually occasioned his arrest and he spent eighteen months in prison, which no doubt helped to advance him to the status of a martyr and enhanced the popularity of this book.  He became a symbol of the ultimate revolutionary Utopian socialist.

Moscow, Smolensky Boulevard, Study (1916)
Wassily Kadinsky
source Wikiart

This book served not only as a platform for Chernyshevsky’s ideas, but it was also a response to Ivan Turgenev’s Fathers and Sons.  In Turgenev’s novel, Turgenev explores the relationship between reason and emotion, or perhaps how emotion can undermine one’s ideology.  In Fathers and Sons, both the nihilist Bazarov’s ideology and his underdeveloped grasp of emotion appear to cancel each other out, leaving him in a morass of ineffectuality in either.  In contrast, the nobleman Kirsanov reaches a level of contentment using a combination of idealism and reason, mirrored in his recognition of family values, the importance of nature and the land on which he lives. Chernyshevsky despised the novel and Turgenev’s portrayal of “new men”; with his novel, he strove to counter the portrayal, borrowing character names from Turgenev and metamorphosing Bazarov’s nihilism into rational egoism for what he thought allowed for more efficient action.  The ongoing debate continued with Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s response to What is To Be Done?, in his Notes from the Underground.

Perhaps I was suffering with extreme impatience with naive “genius” philosophers and writers, but the impatience only increased with Chernyshevsky.  Not only were his ideas born of some unrealistic fantasy, but the structure of his book was tedious.  The book wasn’t really a story, it was merely Chernyshevsky’s ideas.  Everyone is subordinate to his ideas, from his plot, to his characters, even his reader cannot escape.  While I know that authors control their stories, I like to feel their stories control them to some degree; that the story is born inside of them with not only the passionate ideas that they breed, but perhaps with an insight that is not quite explored or realized.  Then, voilà!  A “conversation” is begun between reader and writer. Yet, with Chernyshevsky, this certainly wasn’t the case.  Instead of speaking with you, he speaks at you.  In fact, he goes so far as to address his readers with an intentional condescension, not only confessing what he is doing to you with his prose, but leading you down garden paths of supposition, professing your own ideas and putting words in your mouth, then calling you an idiot because you followed what he was offering you.  I don’t understand it.  Often these people profess to know all the ills of society and all the solutions, but they have absolutely no social skills or even an appearance of love for humanity at all; or at least it doesn’t come out in their work.

I’m going to read Notes from the Underground next to finish this conversation. Dostoyevsky confuses me, but he has to be better than Chernyshevsky.  Doesn’t he ………???

Ecce Homo by Friedrich Nietzsche

Ecce Homo

Ecce Homo: “In view of the fact that I will shortly have to confront humanity with the heaviest demand ever made of it, it seems to me essential to say who I am.”

I feel somewhat exhausted.  Approaching Ecce Homo with something akin to trepidation, it’s been proven that my expectations are often very accurate. Nietzsche was certainly a trial, but I’m glad that I read Ecce Homo, my first exposure to this singular German philosopher.  Wow, Nietzsche would hate that description.  He despised Germans and felt philosophy was a fraud.  In any case, he didn’t like most things, so any way I described him, I’d be in danger of his patronizing, scathing invective.

Ecce Homo, or How One Becomes What One Is (Wie Man Wird, Was Man Ist) was the last book that Nietzsche wrote before his death and gives insight into the man, his ideas and his works.  The words “Ecce Homo” are taken from the words Pontius Pilate used when he delivered Jesus, scourged and bleeding, to a riotous crowd right before he was taken to be crucified.  Nietzsche hated Christianity because he felt that it was the mechanism for the function of society and, therefore, was responsible for everything that was wrong with it.

Yet while the book gives enlightenment, it does so from Nietzsche’s perspective, words coming from a man who already seemed in the throes of the mental illness that would bring about his death.  It’s certainly helpful to see it in this light.

 

Ecce Homo
Ecce Homo (1558-60)
Titian
source Wikipedia

Why I Am So Wise

Nietzsche is better than everyone else in the world.  He is so incredibly wise and we are such small, insignificant beings compared to him, with nothing in particular to add to the benefit of humanity, that he can hardly stand to be in our presence.  Lest you think I’m being too hard on him, let Nietzsche speak for himself:

” ….. I have an instinct for cleanliness that is utterly uncanny in its senstivity, which means that I can physiologically detect —- smell —- the proximity or (what am I saying?) the innermost aspect, the ‘innards’ of every soul …… I am already conscious of the large amount of concealed dirt at the bottom of many a nature, perhaps occasioned by bad blood but whitewashed over by upbringing. ……. natures like this which are unconducive to my cleanliness feel the circumspection of my digust on their part, too; it does not make them smell any more pleasant ……. impure conditions are the death of me ………. This makes dealing with people quite a trial to my patience; my humaneness consists not in sympathizing with someone, but in putting up with the fact that I sympathize with them …… My humaneness is a constant self-overcoming …….”

Ecce Homo
Ecce Homo (1964-67)
Salvador Dali
source Wikiart

There is more blather stating that compassion, rather than being a virtue, is a weakness, and he references his work, Zarathustra, for proof (in this I believe Nietzsche misses making the distinction between false compassion and true compassion); and labelling rudeness as one of the foremost virtues (again, he muddles benevolent frankness with lack of resolution and fortitude to deal with issues).

He announces his penchant for war, or attack, and lists his rules of war:

  1. He attacks only causes which are victorious
  2. He attacks causes only when there are no allies to be found
  3. He never attacks people
  4. He attacks things only when all personal disagreement is ruled out

He claims that he can attack causes with impunity, and that there are no hard feelings from the victim, yet in his next chapter he states, “May I make bold as to intimate one last trait of my nature which causes me no little trouble in my dealings with people?,” indicating that his relationships are not so harmonious as he’d like to believe.

Why I Am So Clever

I seriously asked myself if I really wanted to know why Nietzsche thought himself so clever, but, foolish me, I decided to keep on reading.

Nietzsche lists the reasons for his cleverness at the beginning of this section:

  • he has not squandered himself
  • he has no personal experience with true religious difficulties
  • he is entirely at a loss to know how sinful he is supposed to be

Higher educations causes one to lose sight of realities and Nietzsche then begins to take pot-shots at the German education system, which regresses to insulting German culinary tradition.  How we got there, I’m uncertain.  He then conducts a detailed investigation into:

  • nutrition
  • place
  • climate
  • relaxation

Within these four topics, Nietzsche likens reading to letting an alien climb over your wall; claims he reads the same books because he is opposed to new books by instinct; states everywhere that Germany extends, it ruins culture; that we are all afraid of truth; and that Wagner to him, is like hashish.  It sounds bizarre and, quite frankly, is, but there are certainly some interesting ideas in Nietzsche’s convoluted onslaught of aberrant thought.

He claims that he now cannot avoid the question how to become what you are, but then digresses, and I can’t find anywhere where he answers it.

And asked why he concentrates so much on the small issues of above, Nietzsche alleges that to-date everything that man had deemed important is, in fact, lies because we have searched for divinity in human nature.  We must start relearning and therefore, we must begin with the basics.

Why I Write Such Good Books

“I am one thing, my writings are another.”

Nietzsche is resigned to the fact that no one will be able to understand his writing, feeling no ill-will towards anyone for their lack of intellect.

” …. in other words experiencing —- six sentences of it [Zarathustra] raises you up to a higher level of mortals than ‘modern’ men could ever reach ….”

Some day, there will be universities dedicated to understanding his works.  No one has experienced what Nietzsche has, and therefore is it not understandable that no one can comprehend his genius? Oh here, let me allow Nietzsche to speak for himself:

“I know my prerogatives as a writer to some extent; in certain cases I even have evidence of how much it ‘ruins’ people’s taste if they get used to my writings.  They simply can no longer stand other books, least of all philosophy books.  It is an unparalleled distrinction to step into this noble and delicate world — for which you must not on any account be a German; ultimately it is a distinction you need to have earned …… I come from the heights to which no bird has yet flown, I know abysses into which no foot has yet strayed.  I have been told it is not possible to let a book of mine out of one’s hands —- that I even disturb sleep …… There is definitely no prouder and at the same time more refined kind of book: here and there they achieve the highest thing that can be achieved on earth, cynicism; you must tackle them with the most delicate fingers as well as with the bravest fists.”

The birth of tragedy

Nietzsche then outlines each of his books, spending most of his time lauding their brilliance, mentioning the few geniuses who have enjoyed them, and condemning everyone who disliked them.

The Birth of Tragedy:  “It is politically indifferent  —– ‘un-German’ in today’s parlance —- it smells offensively Hegelian, and in just a few phrases it is tainted with the doleful scent of Schopenhauer.  An ‘idea’ — the Dionysian/Apollonian opposition —- translated into metaphysics, history itself as the development of this ‘idea’; in tragedy the opposition sublated to become a unity form this point of view things that had never looked each other in the face before suddenly juxtaposed, illuminated, and understood in the light of each other …..”

the untimelies

The Untimelies: The Untimelies can also be translated as “Thoughts out of Season”, “Unmodern Observations” or “Unfashionable Observations”.  In this writing, Nietzsche draws his rapier and launches four attacks:

First, an attack on the German education system.  I found that this was the first time I actually agreed with Nietzsche.  He purported that there was no evidence at all that Germany’s military success was a result of their education.  The school system in America is apparently an offshoot of this Prussia model.  I found an interesting article about it here.  One of my favourite authors, John Taylor Gatto, talks about this model in his book, The Underground History of American Education.  I highly recommend it.

The second attack is titled, On the Uses and Disadvantages of History for Life.  Nietzsche warns of the dangers of “our kind of scientific endeavour, what there is in it that gnaws away at life and poisons it —- life made ill by this dehumanized machinery and mechanism, by the ‘impersonality’ of the worker, by the false economy of the ‘division of labour’.  The end, culture, is lost — the means, modern scientific endeavour, barbarizes ….”  Hmmm ….. is it possible that I might again agree with Nietzsche?  That would be just too weird.

The third and fourth Untemelies, titled Schopenhauer as Educator and Richard Wagner in Bayreuth, give an impression of “a higher conception of culture, towards the restoration of the concept ‘culture'” in which two images are set, having the highest contempt for everything around them that is synonymous with the present culture.  I doubt that I’d side with him here.

Nietzsche appears to take great joy in upsetting everyone around him.

human all too human

Human, All Too Human: With Two Continuations:

Subtitled A Book For Free Spirits, Nietzsche claims in this writing that he liberated himself from idealism and is “a spirit that has become free, that has seized possession of itself again.”

I wasn’t quite clear as to what exactly this work was about, due to Nietzsche’s ambiguity and his habit of digression, but it appears that he mentions things favourable to Voltaire, and addresses his break with Richard Wagner.  Why am I not surprised that he extols the thoughts of Voltaire?

The work apparently evolved out of some mental crisis that Nietzsche experienced during the Bayreuth Festival when he felt a “profound sense of alienation” and went off into the forest before being coaxed back by his sister.

daybreak

Daybreak: Thoughts on Morality as Prejudice

Nietzsche states that this book commenced his war against morality.  Again, Nietzsche commends his work and genius, rather than getting to the meat of his ideas.

“Even now, if I encounter the book by chance, practically every sentence becomes a tip with which I can pull up something incomparable from the depths once again: its whole hide quivers with the tender shudders of recollection ….”

But finally Nietzsche gets to a description of what he believes is its value:

“In a revaluation of all values, in freeing himself from all moral values, in saying ‘yes’ to and placing trust in everything that has hitherto been forbidden, despised, condemned.  This yes-saying book pours out its light, its love, its delicacy over nothing but bad things, it gives them back their ‘soul’, their good conscience, the lofty right and prerogative of existence.”

Good grief!  You want to counter this statement but where do you start?  Does he think that there have been no societies that have tried to live without morality?  Is this morality-proper or Nietzsche’s type of morality?  Can one truly escape some sort of morality?

the gay science

The Gay Science:  This title is developed out of the Provençal expression which is used to describe the technical skill of writing poetry, as Nietzsche describes it, “almost every sentence here profundity and mischief go tenderly hand in hand.”  The quality of the Provençal style shows “unity of singer, knight, and free thinker which distinguishes the marvellous early culture of the Provençal people from all ambiguous cultures ….”

thus spoke zarathustra

Thus Spoke Zarathustra: A Book For Everybody and Nobody:  Again, it’s best for Nietzsche to describe this, in his often lovely prose ~ what it means, however, one is often left wondering ….

“Aphorisms quivering with passion; eloquence become music; lightning-bolts hurled on ahead towards hitherto unguessed-at futures.  The mightiest power of analogy that has yet existed is feeble fooling compared to this return of language to its natural state of figurativeness —- And how Zarathustra descends and says the kindest things to everyone!  How he tackles even his adversaries, the priests, with delicate hands and suffers from them with them!  —- Here man is overcome at every moment; the concept of ‘overman’ has become the highest reality here — everything that has hitherto been called great about man lies at an infinite distance below him.  The halcyon tone, the light feet, the omnipresence of malice and high spirits and everything else that is typical of the type Zarathustra has never been dreamed of as essential to greatness.  Precisely in this extent of space, in this ability to access what is opposed, Zarathustra feels himself to be the highest of all species of being; and when we hear how he defines it, we will dispense with searching for his like.”

I won’t sport with your intelligence in continuing to relate just how much more knowledgable and astute Zarathustra (and therefore, Nietzsche) is than you will ever be.

beyond good and evil

Beyond Good and Evil:  If Nietzsche doesn’t catch any “fish” with his works, what could that mean? The cause?  Is it perhaps because his arguments don’t make sense or people can’t relate to his delivery?  No!  According to Nietzsche, it means that there simply weren’t any fish to be caught.

This book is “a critique of modernity, not excluding the modern sciences, the modern arts, even modern politics, together with pointers towards an opposing type, as unmodern as possible, a noble, yes-saying type ….. refinement in form, in intention, in the art of silence is in the foreground; psychology is handled with avowed harshness and cruelty —- the books is devoid of any good-natured word …..”

 

geneology of morals

Genealogy of Morals: A Polemic:  

A book of three essays:

  1. the psychology of Christianity
  2. the psychology of conscience
  3. where the immense power of the ascetic ideal springs from

This actually sounds somewhat interesting to me.

 

twilight of the idols

Twilight of the Idols: How to Philosophize with a Hammer:

Nietzsche recommends starting with this work.  It’s a short book but “there is nothing richer in substance, more independent, more subversive —- more wicked …”

Nietzsche is the first to have “the yard-stick of truths in his hand.”  He is the evangelist to truth, and everyone was lost before him.

the wagner case

The Wagner Case: A Musician’s Problem:  To read this properly, you need to feel as though music is the history of your own suffering.  I think that this writing deals with his split from his friend, Richard Wagner, a well-known German composer, but Nietzsche launches a scathing invective against, I’m assuming, the ideals that Wagner supported.  He castigates Germans for many things, wrapping up his ire in their great cultural crimes.  He attacks Martin Luther along with Leibniz and Kant.  In fact, Germans have “robbed Europe of its meaning, its reason…”  

Why I Am A Destiny

Nietzsche is terrified that one day he will be called holy.  But, he admits, his “truth is terrifying, for lies were called truth so far.  —- Revaluation of all values: that is my formula for the highest act of self-reflection on the part of humanity, which has become flesh and genius in me.  My lot wills it that I must be the first decent human being, that I know I stand in opposition to the hypocrisy of millennia ….. I was the first to discover the truth, by being the first to sense — smell — the lie as a lie …..   My genius is in my nostrils.”

What follows is more exaltation of evil and lying, and conversely Nietzsche advocates war against the good, benevolent, the beneficent, and Christian morality.  More invectives against Christianity follow, the content of which makes me wonder if Nietzsche really had an issue with Christ, or simply with the way Christianity had been presented to him.  In any case, it really doesn’t matter.  At this point Nietzsche had drained me, and I predict that I’d have an issue reading any work longer than this book of his, which is only 138 pages. He signed this work  ~ Dionysus against the crucified one ~  Nietzsche aligned himself with the early Greek philosophers and thought of himself as a modern-day Dionysus.

bacchus
Bacchus (or Dionysus – 1596)
Caravaggio
source Wikiart

Never mind Dionysus —– Nietzsche is the consummate Narcissus.  He placed himself in the position of God; everything was measured by his own thoughts and emotions, and judged accordingly.  Since he was so much above everything and everyone, is it any surprise that all fall short of his ideal? Perhaps that is nothing, and for a great philosopher is understandable.  Yet the contempt and the disparagement that he exhibits towards nearly everyone, not only severely undermines much of his philosophy, but also twists his ideas into a mass of writhing snakes where one is at a loss to find the proper head and tail to each.

I found some of Nietzsche’s ideas fascinating, but as soon as I started to read his arguments that developed those ideas, he often lost my interest.  Not only were his disputations littered with self-praise, ambiguity and circumlocution, he often didn’t make sense, or perhaps I should say that, in this book, his explanations didn’t go far enough.  He also spoke from a very ethnocentric point-of-view.  Although he believed that he borrowed ideas from the ancient Greeks, almost everything he criticized was German, and everything he wanted to fix related to German society.  I’m not sure how well some of his arguments would hold up in other countries, but my brain is too done to wonder about this ——- no, my brain is not tired because it explored wonderfully deep amazing thoughts; it’s tired as if it’s had to put up with a recalcitrant child for the last couple of weeks.  And so ends my first experience with Nietzsche.

I am quite enjoying my WEM Project.  It’s forced me to read some books that I probably wouldn’t have touched otherwise.  I didn’t particularly enjoy Nietzsche but look at the length of my review!  He at least inspired something, even though it wasn’t admiration.

 

reading the biographies

 

The Canterbury Tales ~ The Knight’s Tale

As the pilgrims draw lots to determine who will be the first to tell their story, the first draw goes to the Knight.

              And when this excellent man saw how it stood,
              Ready to keep his promise, he said, “Good!”
              Since it appears that I must start the game,
              Why then, the draw is welcome, in God’s name
              Now let’s ride on and listen to what I say.”
              And with that word we rode forth on our way …

The first page of The Knight’s Tale
source Wikimedia Commons

The Knight’s Tale

After being appealed to by a number of deposed queens and duchesses from Thebes, King Theseus of Athens attacks the city and gains victory over Creon, King of Thebes.  During the fighting, two knights named Palamon and Arcite, are taken prisoner and thrown into a dungeon.  Left to rot there forever, Palamon one day spies Emelye, who is as fair as any damsel and the sister of Theseus’ wife Hippolyta, and he falls in love.  Arcite, wondering at this cousin’s lovelorn look, spots her too, claims his love of her, and acrimony is born within the love triangle of the cousins.

Portrait of a Knight (1510)
Vittore Carpaccio
source Wikiart

Years later, Arcite is released by Theseus upon request of a friend, but is sentenced to exile from which he laments Palamon’s better fate of prison, due to his being able to gaze upon Emelye, whereas Arcite has now been denied that pleasure. Eventually he risks returning to Athens in diguise as a page named Philostratus, who enters Emelye’s household.  One day he comes upon Palamon, who has escaped, they begin to fight but are stayed by Theseus who announces that he will set up a grand tournament of knights, and the one who is the victor will win Emelye’s hand in marriage.

Meanwhile, we find, that while Emelye has been the centre of this strife and turmoil, that she actually does not wish to marry either knight.  She relates to the goddess, Diana:

“To whom are open earth and sea and sky,
Goddess of maidens, well you know that I
Desire to be a maiden all my life,
And never to be a man’s love nor his wife.
Among your followers I have kept my place,
A maid, in love with hunting and the chase
And to go walking in the greenwood wild
And not to be a wife and be with child;
For nothing will I have to do with man.
Now help me, lady, since you may and can.”

But while Diana could help her, she refuses, stating that Emelye’s destiny has been ordained to marry one of the knights, but which, she will not tell.  Emelye submits to her fate with good grace.

Emilie dans le jardin observée par
Arcitas et Palamon emprisonnés (1460)
source Wikimedia Commons

Palamon prays to Venus for victory, but we get a long description of Arcite in his battle attire before we hear of him offering sacrifices, and for him, it is to the god, Mars; so we have Palamon appealing to the goddess of Love, and Arcite appealing to the god of War.  Who do you think will win?

Ah, it appears that Arcite triumphs, bearing down Palamon and his knights, capturing him and taking him to the stake.  Venus is shamed with the outcome, but Saturn asssures her that she will also have her desire.  But how, with Palamon conquered and Arcite set to wed Emelye?

Well, Arcite has little time to enjoy his achievement.  Helmetless, he is pitched to the ground by his horse, landing on his head and receiving mortal wounds. He lasts a short time before succumbing, and Emelye and Palamon are in mourning.  But good King Theseus delivers a long speech about the Prime Mover and how all earthly beings must submit to the higher order of things. He blesses the wedding of Palamon and Emelye, and they live happily without jealousy and with extreme tenderness.

One can tell that there is much more to this tale than what is simple cloaking the surface.  First, there is the obvious emphasis on fate or destiny or a higher power:  Emelye, though she does not wish to marry, readily capitulates to Venus’ edict that she must; and, of of course, while it initially appears to all the people that Arcite will wed Emelye, there is a “blueprint” already in place for everyone’s destiny that man, in his puniness, cannot yet see.  A life lived well is to submit to the inevitable, yet take opportunities when they come to you.

Emilie à la chasse assistant au combat entre Arcitas et Palamon
Source: Wikimedia Commons

There is also an emphasis on nature and it’s interaction with man.  The General Prologue initially drew us right into Nature and Spring “Whan that Aprille with his shoures sote, The droghte of Marche hath perced to the rote, And bathed every veyne in swich licour, Of which vertu engendred is the flour.”  From the sky and nature, we are then taken to be introduced to the earthly pilgrims.  In The Knight’s Tale, in the building of the sepulcher for Arcite, there is an obvious battle between nature and man, as Theseus fells the “old oaks” to make a funeral bier:

“You will not hear from me how all the trees
Were felled, nor how the local deities,
Nymphs, fauns, and hamadryads and the rest,
Ran up and down, scattered and dispossessed,
Nor how the beasts and wood birds, one and all,
Fled terrified when the trunks began to fall;
Nor how the ground stood all aghast and bright,
Affronted with the unfamiliar light ….”

There is a continuous tension between man and his environment, again perhaps due to either his lack of foresight, or his inability to understand the grand plan of the Prime Mover.

And, of course, in the battle between Arcite and Palamon and their gods, in spite of the appearance of war winning over love, it is love which achieves the ultimate victory.

I’m certain there are many other themes included, such as pageantry, hierarchical Medevial structure, and not so much the capriciousness of the gods, but the uncertainty of destiny, but I’ve probably explored this tale as much as I can for the first read.  One curious point struck me though ….. although this story is set in Greece, the gods are all given Roman names, instead of their Greek ones.  I have no idea why, but it is a puzzling choice.

The next tale up, is The Miller’s Tale ……

The Canterbury Tales/ The Brubury TalesProject
The Knight’s Tale