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 Christmas Child by Hesba Stretton

“Along some parts of the coast in South Wales the mountains rise abruptly from the shore, with only a narrow shingle between them and the sea.”

Miss Priscilla Parry is a farm leaseholder, the last of three generations before the farm will revert to its landlord.  She ekes out a living on the craggy, unfertile land, selling butter, cheese and mutton to manage a poor living.  Her life’s work is epitomized in her determination to make her teenage ward and niece, Rhoda, independent, so she will never be forced to marry, the biggest misfortune, in Priscilla’s eyes, that a woman could face.

When another niece dies and leaves a child, Joan, an orphan, Priscilla grudging agrees to take her in, yet in her concern that the plans for Rhoda not be compromised, she gives the child rather a lukewarm welcome and questionable care.  Little does she need another girl to worry and fret about her future.  Rhoda, however, adores young Joan, and they quickly become fast friends.  When Christmas arrives, they play a game of looking for the Christ child in their manager, but on the second Christmas Rhoda disappears and the household is thrown into mourning.  Old Nathan, the servant, is the only one to comfort Joan, as Priscilla withdraws into a cold demeanour of disappointed hopes.

However, the next Christmas, a child is discovered sleeping in the manager, a child that will bring hope, restoration and joy back into the lives of Priscilla, Joan and old Nathan, echoing the mission of that first manger child long, long ago.

This is a wonderful story of love, mistakes, forgiveness and reconciliation. Coincidentially, I found this article when searching for pictures for my blog post.  Hopefully the life of this little one will bring joy into this world as well.

View north into Cwm Llwch from Corn Du
source Wikipedia

Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton

Ethan Frome Edith Wharton

Ethan Frome: “I had the story, bit by bit, from various people, and, as generally happens in such cases, each time it was a different story.”

I was so pleased to finish my Wharton book, Ethan Frome, for Brona’s The Wharton Review well ahead of time!  Fortunately the 150-ish pages of the book made it a relatively easy task, as I was really looking forward to reading another Wharton.  I class her The House of Mirth as one of my top favourites.

This story is told from an omniscient point of view by a narrator whose name we never learn.  His job as an engineer brings him to the town of Starkfield, Massachusetts, and there he meets the taciturn Ethan Frome.  Through his interaction with Frome and later through stories of the townspeople, he learns Ethan Frome’s tragic and rather startling story.

While he was a young man, Ethan Frome had set off for college with little money but big dreams, however he had to return to Starkfield because of the illness of his father.  Since then, he had remained in Starkfield to run the family farm, acquitting his duties with a stoic determination.  Reserved by nature, Ethan is captivated by his cousin Zeena’s cheerful demeanour and marries her, but her cheer soon turns to sickness, discontent and bitterness.  After years of her maladies, Zeena’s cousin Mattie arrives to help with the housework and other duties, and Ethan, discouraged with the drudgery of an unproductive farm and the burden of an unhappy marriage, allows himself to be drawn into her spell.  The story begins here, in media res, and we see the culminating tragedy of two passions, one rather innocent and untried, and the other, bottled up so long in duty and silence, that is verging on the explosive.

New England Road Mary Cassatt
New England Road
Mary Cassatt
source

It is surmised that Wharton’s own discontented marriage was the model for Frome’s, communicating the helpless imprisoned feeling of a relationship all but dead through apathy and selfishness of the two participants.  Wharton uses the frigid bleakness of the Starkfield winter in her story to communicate the same desolation that permeates the characters and their situations in life. No one can escape their fate.

Did I enjoy this book?  Well, yes, in a way ……….  Wharton is a good writer and I doubt that she could craft a bad story.  However this story, while compelling, lacked the maturity of her better known novels.  She tended to rely too much on drama to carry the story off, instead of working more within the characters, instilling subtleties that would speak to the reader on a deeper level.  As for the frame story, this aspect of the book reminded me of Wuthering Heights, and I still haven’t met an author who can employ this device with capable proficiency.  I know it’s supposed to allow the writer more leeway in the way he/she presents the story, but in my experience it merely tends to weaken it. Ethan Frome was a fine effort by Wharton but perhaps clouded with a little too much personal emotion to allow her the distance needed to craft a superior novel.

Other Wharton books reviewed here:  The Age of Innocence

 

The Wharton Review

 

Orlando: A Biography by Virginia Woolf

“He — for there could be no doubt of his sex, though the fasion of the time did something to disguise it — was in the act of slicing at the head of a Moor which swung from the rafters.”

My experience with Woolf’s writing is limited yet expanding.  I loved reading To The Lighthouse for its somewhat dream-like qualities and was rather pleasantly lulled by its stream-of-consciousness style.  Mrs. Dalloway I enjoyed, but I didn’t connect with it as much as I’d hoped and was left in a somewhat puzzled frame of mind at the end.  After reading Orlando, I was left with this same feeling.  What exactly did I just read and who was this Orlando?

Orlando is a young man born in the reign of Elizabeth I, and the novel follows him through his youth, as he has an affair with a Russian princess, cares for his ancestral estate, travels on diplomatic missions, etc.  The theme of writing is also explored, in his rejection by a famous poet and various other allusions. Finally he falls into a trace and, lo, awakes a woman.  This transformation does not seem  to surprise him, and she carries on her life as if nothing remise has occurred, yet upon returning to England she finds her estate embroiled in financial turmoil.  While remaining a woman, she fashionably switches between genders, eventually marries a sea captain, wins the lawsuit with regard to her property and that’s about it.  Woolf herself acts as an historical biographer and with her comic and satirical descriptions of certain people, I wasn’t sure if she was parodying herself as narrator, or taking a poke at a particular figure of her time and society.

Honestly I don’t have much to say about the book.  Twentieth century literature always does this to me.  I expect to be “informed and amused,” as books attempted to do historically (see my Gulliver’s Travels post for some extra information on writers’ intent) and end up somewhat disappointed when I’m only amused.  While I enjoyed the book, it would probably get only 3.5 stars from me.  In spite of my resolution to love it, 20th century literature always falls short.  Certainly the stream of consciousness writing is an interesting experiment, the disjointed prose perhaps a comment on the human psyche and the other artistic experiments are worth examining, but I’m always left with an empty feeling at the end.  What was the author really trying to say?  What did I learn?  What could I take away from the book that would change me in some fundamental way?

Yet, it turns out Woolf herself perhaps was not as satisfied with Orlando as she’d hoped.  Woolf wrote in her diary:

“I have written this book quicker than any; and it is all a joke; and yet gay and quick reading, I think; a writer’s holiday.”

“……… begun ….. as a joke: and now rather too long for my liking.  It may fall between stools; being too long for a joke, and too frivolous for a serious book.”

“Orlando taught me how to write a direct sentence; taught me continuity and narrative and how to keep the realities at bay.  But I purposely avoided, of course, any other difficulty.  I never got down to my depths and made shapes square up, as I did in the Lighthouse …… I want fun.  I want fantasy.”

And yes, Woolf wasn’t meaning this book to be serious at all:

“My notion is that there are offices to be discharged by talent for the relief of genius: meaning that one has the play side; the gift when it is mere gift, unapplied gift; and the gift when it is serious, going to business.  And one relieves the other.”

And so Orlando was a playful, frivolous fantasy that enraptures the reader, as Woolf captures your imagination with her wonderfully vibrant prose and light-hearted fanciful tone.  And I can enjoy it on that level.  Yet it is still only a wonderfully decorative cake, and I feel like I’ve missed the main meal.

O at Behold the Stars has an excellent review of Orlando, and with her comprehensive knowledge of Woolf, will be able to give you much more insight into the book than I have.

Utopia by Thomas More

“The moste vyctoryous and tryumphante Kynge of Englande, Henry theight of that name, in all royal vertues Prince moste peerlesse, hadde of late in contrauersie with the right hyghe and myghtie king of Castell weightye matters, and of greate importaunce; for the debatement and final determination wherof the kinges Maieste sent me Ambassadour into flaunders, ioined in commission, and whom the kinges maiestie of late, to the greate reioysyng of all men, did preferre to the office of maister of the Rolles.”

I certainly promise not to write this review in Middle English but I thought I’d give you a taste of it.  And, no, I didn’t read the complete book in ME, I was able to get through about 1/5 of it and then changed to a modern English version.  And most happily, I might add.  The original Utopia was written in Latin in a fine emulation of Ciceronian Latin, yet More took it a step further in humour and playfulness.

Sir Thomas More, Lord Chancellor
Hans Holbein the Younger
source Wikipedia

Born in London in 1478, Thomas More was a very learned man and, if he had been able to follow his inclinations, would have been destined for the church.  His father, however, had other aspirations for him and, being a dutiful son, he conceded to his wishes and chose the law as his profession.  Unexpectedly, he was a marvellous success as a lawyer.  He soon had a thriving business and his extraordinary aptitude quickly brought him under scrutiny of the “higher-ups”. The political positions he was eventually offered were always accepted reluctantly, and More had a life-long dilemma with reconciling his loyalty to his sovereign and his loyalty as a Christian to his conscience.

As a Catholic, More opposed the Protestant Reformation.  Serving as Lord Chancellor under King Henry VIII, he was accused of inflicting harsh treatment on heretics, but he denied the accusations.  What is interesting is that his son-in-law at the time, was enticed by “Lutheran heresies”, and More’s reaction when speaking with his daughter, was surprisingly temperate: “Meg, I have borne a long time with thy husband.  I have reasoned and argued a long time with him and still given him my poor fatherly counsel; but I perceive none of all this can call him home again.  And, therefore, Meg, I will no longer dispute with him, not yet will I give him over; but I will go another way to work, and get me to God and pray for him.”

A man of honour and high standards, he would not even compromise for his family.  When one of his sons-in-law expected preferential treatment  because of More’s office, More stated, “If my father whom I dearly love were on one side and the devil, whom I sincerely hate, were on the other, the devil should have his rights.”

With King Henry VIII’s decision to divorce his queen, Catherine, More’s power began to unravel.  While remaining quiet publicly, he continued to support the Pope over the King, and when he was required to sign a letter asking the Pope to annul the marriage, More refused.  Henry soon began to isolate him. Eventually when More openly refused to acknowledge the annulment, Henry took action, arresting More for treason.  He was decapitated on July 6, 1535. When the Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V, heard of his death, he said, “Well, this we will say, if we had been the master of such a servant, we would rather have lost the best city of our dominions than have lost such a counsellor.”

Map: This picture was taken from
 one of the first editions of the book,
which is published online at the 
Bibliotheca Augustana

Probably inspired by his close friend, Desiderius Erasmus, Thomas More wrote Utopia in 1516 during an embassy to the Netherlands.  A very brief book, yet with a complex structure, More used himself and a character called Raphael Hythloday to present political philosophies that range from the insightful and wise, to the curiously peculiar.  In Book I, More crafts the setting for Utopia and then, through his character and Hythloday’s, offers a discourse on the evils and ills prevalent in European society.  While having a parallel set-up to Plato’s Republic (Morton = Cephalus; Hythlodaye = Socrates; lawyer = Thrasymachus), More adopts occurrences from his own day to structure the framework of Utopia and construct a more politically and socially organized text.   More uses this venue to chastize the actions of kings who use the country’s money for unproductive warmongering, and especially vilifies the practice of hanging thieves on the gallows, often for very petty infractions.  In Book II, More offers a detailed description of Utopia, its inhabitants and its societal structure. The Utopian community supports common property, slavery and religious tolerance.  Agriculture is the most treasured occupation but each Utopian is required to learn some other trade as well.  Finery is frowned upon, pre-marital sex and adultery punishable, and while atheists are allowed in Utopia, they are shunned because their views are counter-productive to the Utopian community.

More & Hythloday discuss Utopia
source

Scholars are still in disagreement as to More’s purpose when writing this book. On one hand, some purport that More’s intent was to write and endorse a treatise on communism and its implementation.   Others scholars differ in opinion; while the book had a basis in the condition of European politics, it was nevertheless written tongue-in-cheek.  Brewer in his Reign of Henry VIII, appears to support this view:

“Though the Utopia was not to be literally followed —- was no more than an abstraction at which no one would have laughed more heartily than More himself, if interpreted too strictly.  Utopia might serve to show a corrupt Christendom what good could be effected by the natural instincts of men, when following the dictates of natural prudence and justice.  If kings could never be elective in Europe, Utopia might show the advantage to a nation where kings were responsible to some other will than their own.  If property could never be common, Utopia might teach men how great was the benefit to society, when the state regarded itself as created for the wellbeing of all, and not of a class of a favoured few …….”

C.S. Lewis, a medieval and renaissance scholar, takes More’s book as a light holiday work, and this summation rings true, as More make some comments himself that were obscure, but appeared to poke fun at his work.  Lewis states:

 “….. it appears confused only so long as we are trying to get out of it what it never intended to give.  It becomes intelligible and delightful as soon as we take it for what it is —- a holiday work, a spontaneous overflow of intellectual high spirits, a revel of debate, paradox, comedy and (above all) of invention, which starts many hare and kills none …..  There is a thread of serious thought funning through it, an abundance of daring suggestions, several back-handed blows at European institutions …….  But he does not keep our noses to the grindstone.  He says many things for the fun of them, surrendering himself to the sheer pleasure of imagined geography, imagined language, and imagined institutions.  That is what readers whose interests are rigidly political do not understand: but everyone who has ever made an imaginary map responds at once.”

If we take into account some of the regional names in this work, the purpose may become clearer still.  “Utopia” literally means, “no place”; “Achoria” means “Nolandia”; “Polyleritae” means “Muchnonsense”; “Macarenses” means “Happiland”; and the river “Anydrus” means “Nowater”.  Even Raphael’s last name, Hythlodaeus, translates as “dispenser of nonense”.  Was More being ironic or serious?  I doubt we can ever know for sure.

In spite of the obscurity of the book and some of the controversies surrounding More, I loved both the author and this work.  He appeared to treat both his wives well, quite clearly loved his children, was well thought of and respected, and in spite of his position, chose to write a story that not only amused his readers, but allowed them to explore human nature and come to their own conclusions with regard to universal issues.  Thomas More is a man to be admired and Utopia is certainly a book to be read!

  • translated by Clarence H. Miller (English translation)
  • also Oxford Press “student” edition edited by J. Churton Collins (Middle English translation)

Further reading:  

July’s People by Nadine Gordimer

“You like to have some cup of tea?  —– July bent at the doorway and began that day for them as his kind has always done for their kind.”

In South Africa, the black South Africans have risen up against the whites, and the country is in chaos.  July, the servant of Bamford and Maureen Smales, secrets them out of the city and transport them to his village, in order to save their lives and the lives of their three children.  Nadine Gordimer’s novel was written before the end of apartheid in South Africa and is a fictional account of the beginnings of a civil war where the black South Africans have thrown the country into chaos as they attempt to abolish the apartheid system.

Honestly, I decided to read this book because it was on my Guardian’s 1000 best novel list.  In spite of having a few South African friends, I have only very cursory knowledge of South Africa or apartheid.  I was hoping to acquire a basic understanding of the country and its struggles in reading this book, but unfortunately no larger pictures of life or the people were revealed.  The narrative was somewhat choppy and disjointed, requiring effort to follow Gordimer’s train of thought, but also to follow in detail the action in the story.

Drakensburg Mountains
source Wikipedia

Obviously there is no question about racial inequality with regard to the issues in South Africa, but I thought this book portrayed it in an unexpected way.  July had been a servant in the Smales house previous to the uprising and, while he had been treated well, he had been treated as such.  However, once he rescues the family, the roles invert and July gradually assumes more control of the situation, as the Smales are dependent on him for their livelihood and survival.  At climax of the novel,  July takes command of their yellow bakkie without their permission, and you sense that now they are completely in his power.  Yet with July’s increase in authority, there was really no exhibition of compassion or understanding.  One would think he would be able to see parallels in their situations and treat the Smales with an equality that had been lacking in their original treatment of him.  I’m really not sure what Gordimer was trying to communicate by this portrayal …….. that human nature is universal and unchangeable and that exploitation from one group can infect the victims if the tables are turned?  Are we so devoid of any sort of empathy and so self-centered, that no one can care about the freedom and identity of another person, no matter what the circumstances?  Sigh.  For me, Gordimer was not very clear with her intent, but perhaps that was the point.  In any case, the novel ends with Maureen Smales desperately running towards an unidentified helicopter that could carry South African police or revolutionaries.  Was she running to safety and freedom, or a different type of captivity, or even death?  Or perhaps she was simply wildly and mistakenly trying to run towards the life she once knew.

I honestly I can’t say that I enjoyed this read.  It was interesting in the way it is interesting to examine a dead insect, but nothing in it really spoke to my sympathies.   There was nothing beautiful in the writing that communicated the beauty of the country or the peoples, and no goodness shone through in the hearts of any of the characters.  I do realize that the dire situation in the country at this time may not have encouraged such writing, but people need hope in those times, and perhaps art that exemplifies that type of hope is never more necessary.

Fathers and Sons by Ivan Turgenev

“Well, Piotr, not insight yet?” was the question asked on May the 20th, 1859, by a gentleman of a little over forty, in a dusty coat and checked trousers, who came out without his hat on to the low steps of the posting station at S—–.”

What sort of relationship do you have with your father?  Is it one of respect, deference, and honour, or do you think his ways too traditional, his thought process too archaic, and to keep a tentative understanding between you, do you have to employ a somewhat forced amiability, while underneath feeling an impatient scorn?

In Fathers and Sons, Turgenev examines the ideas of the new and old, progress and stagnation, and generational differences.  Yet while Turgenev portrays these conflicts within families and people, the themes echos the struggles that were occurring in Russia itself, between the common liberals and a nihilism movement that was growing and expanding at an alarming rate. Immediately the reader is tossed into the battle and while you expect to be buffeted to-and-fro between the two forces, one is surprised to find a more gently tossing, a disturbing reminder of how subtly, yet how pervasively this new philosophy could spread into the ideas and actions of the people.

Arkady Nikolaitch returns home from university with his good friend, Bazarov, a self-confessed nihilist, who issues a dripping contempt for most people around him.  Arkady maintains a good relationship with his father Nikolai Petrovitch and his uncle Pavel Petrovitch, yet through Bazarov’s influence he begins to question what he values about their antiquated thought and primitive ways.

With Bazarov’s nihilistic charm and new trendy ideas, his challenging of the status quo makes him a hero of the younger generation, while the older regard him either as dangerous, or rather like an unusual specimen that they can’t quite figure out.  Yet, in spite of renouncing life and its perceived useless order, we find that Bazarov is unable to escape it.  While visiting the house of a widowed woman, Anna Sergyevna Odintsov, he becomes enamoured of her, his emotion overriding his philosophy and eroding some of its immutable strength.

Ivan Turgenev hunting (1879)
Nikolai Dmitriev-Orenburgsky
source Wikipedia

Turgenev does a masterful job of having nature interplay with the characters, their ideas and emotional struggles.  For example, Bazarov is blind to the beauty around him  He merely uses nature, as he engages in his hobby of dissecting frogs,  pulling Nature itself apart to examine its inner workings.  He can only appreciate the slaughtered bits, but is unable to interact with the whole, Nature as life and beauty.

I don’t believe that Bazarov’s nihilism was a true nihilism.  He obviously wanted to reject the status quo and, in fact, had a quarrel with it, which is apparent in his simmering anger when he speaks about it.  He doesn’t just want to contradict it, he longs to disparage it.  His philosophy is a quasi-nihilism that supports his self-importance and that he uses more as a crutch. He is passionate about it but appears to use it merely as a play for power.  He has developed a philosophy, which is truly an anti-philosophy that prevents him from interacting with life itself.

While with Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky you often feel buffeted by the high emotion or deep philosophy, Turgenev’s approach is more gentle, lulling his ideas into the reader’s head with his pastoral description, and lyric pace.  Yet for being gentle, it is no less powerful.  Turgenev has conducted a true masterpiece!

Translated by Constance Garnett


“In these days the most useful thing we can do is to repudiate – and so we repudiate …”

(Note:  Nikolai Chernyshevsky wrote a response to Fathers and Sons with his What is To Be Done? and Dostoyevsky wrote a response to What Is To Be Done?in his Notes From the Underground.  Further explanation of this triple conversation is contained in the reviews below.)



Trilogy:

The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway

“He was an old man who fished alone in a skiff in the Gulf Stream and he had gone eighty-four days now without taking a fish.”

I had disliked Hemingway ever since I attempted to read The Sun Also Rises as a teenager, but when Hamlettte from The Edge of the Precipice  announced her read-along of The Old Man and the Sea, I decided to give him another try.  Perhaps we would get along better this time.

This novella was an unexpected surprise and delight that has, well, perhaps not made me a Hemingway fan, but at least has made me very open to reading more of this works.

Imagine that you live in a small town in a simple hut and your life consists daily of fishing for a catch that will bring you your wages when you sell it in the market.  Now imagine going 30 days without a fish, then 40 days.  You lose your only helper, a boy, because you are now viewed as unlucky, and he is sent to work with more successful fishermen.  Day 60 passes but still you sail out as every other day, confident you will catch something.  By the time our story begins, most men would be worn with worry and care, but not the fisherman of this story, Santiago, who prepares his boat and sets sail as he has the previous 84 days that he did not return with a catch.  On this particular day, Santiago ventures into the Gulf Stream north of Cuba to set his lines and wait for his luck to change.  And does it change!  Hooking an enormous fish, Santiago begins his battle which lasts three days and pulls him out into the depths of the ocean, perhaps without the possibility of return. Yet return he does, but tragically his magnificent catch has been worried by sharks, and resembles nothing but a bony carcass.  Does this worry the old man?  Not one bit.  He makes the same climb to his shack that he has made the last 84 days, yet this time he is a different man.  Falling onto his bed, he dreams of lions and his youth.

While Santiago is fighting against defeat in the novella, at the end of the novel, instead of being defeated by the fact his catch returned only as a ragged skeleton, he returns a hero and his dreams of youth indicate the experience has given him life and vigor that had been missing before that day.  It was not the result of his struggle that mattered; it was the struggle itself and its purpose, that brought meaning back into the old fisherman’s life.

Ernest Hemingway and Henry (“Mike”) Strater
with the remaining 500 lbs of an estimated 1000 lb marlin
 that was half-eaten by sharks before it could be landed
 in the Bahamas in 1935.
source Wikipedia

Hamlette @ The Edge of the Precipice has given us some excellent questions that we can choose to answer for the read-along:

Some people say this story is full of symbolism, maybe even an allegory.  What do you think things like the old man, the fish, and the sharks could symbolize?

The book How To Read Literature Like a Professor states that The Old Man and the Sea is a “nearly perfect literary parable”, full of Christian imagery.  We encounter images of Christ in the story when, after grasping the line all night to hold the fish, Santiago made an exclamation that, as Hemingway tells us, is reminiscent of an exclamation “someone would have while having a nail passed through their hand into a piece of wood”.  After the completion of his voyage, Santiago stumbles up the hill, carrying his mast on his back, bringing the image of Christ carrying the cross to Golgotha, and when Santiago falls asleep in his house on his bed, are arms are spread wide, as if in the shape of a crucified Christ-figure.

source Wikipedia

Were these symbols intentionally put into the story?  Who can know for sure.  Hemingway, himself, when questioned, said:  “There isn’t any symbolism.  The sea is the sea.  The old man is an old man.  The boy is a boy and the fish is a fish.  The sharks are all sharks, no better or no worse.  All the symbolism that people say is sh*t.  What goes beyond is what you see beyond when you know.”  Personally I think that Hemingway used these images to convey meaning.  He didn’t intend to make Santiago, Christ or a Christ-type figure, he simply used images that all readers would be familiar with, to help us feel the old man’s struggle, pain, and sacrifice, and to share his triumph when he returned with the experience of the catch of his life.

Thanks for this excellent read-along, Hamlette.  Here are some other participant reviews:

Candide by Voltaire

“In the castle of Baron Thunder-ten-tronckh in Westphalia, there once lived a youth endowed by nature with the gentlest of characters.”

Published when Voltaire was 66 years old, Candide was expressly written to satirize the philosophy of Optimism.  This optimism was not simply the positive hope of better circumstances, but the belief that everything that happened was for the best, no matter if good or bad, happy or tragic.  This philosophy disgusted Voltaire because he felt that it left no facility for bettering oneself or one’s surroundings and that it supported fatalism and complacency.  The tragic earthquake in Lisbon in 1755 seemed to precipitated the writing of this novel, causing the author to question justice in such a calamity, and reflected in his poem, “Poem on the Disaster of Lisbon,” written weeks afterward.  Candide was further emphasis of Voltaire’s rejection of the attitude that life was the “best of all possible worlds” and that everything that happened in it was for the best.

Voltaire
detailed portrait by Maurice Quenton de la Tour
source Wikipedia

Voltaire was an established writer and thinker by the time he wrote Candide, yet a controversial figure who by many was both admired and hated.  He  was continuously clashing with the government and the church, suffering two periods of incarceration, and most of his adult life was spent exiled from Paris, the city of his birth.  Much of his works were published under a pseudonym to avoid prosecution.  During a stint in exile, he spent three years in Great Britain and, impressed with the freedoms of England, particularly that of speech, his stay intensified his desire for reforms in his home country.  In 1758 he settled in Ferney in eastern France, spending his time farming, writing and supporting local business.  Candide was written there, not long after his move.

Satire:  the use of humour, irony, exaggeration, or ridicule to expose and criticize people’s stupidity or vices, particularly in the context of contemporary politics and other topical issues

Candide is a young man who has grown up living in a state of perfect happiness, guided by his tutor, Pangloss, who is entrenched in the doctrines of Leibnizian Optimism.  Leibnizian Optimism, a philosophy of Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, believed that this world is the best of all possible worlds because it was created by an omniscient God who would not create flaws if a better world could have been created, therefore, whatever we experience in this world, be it good or bad, must work towards good.  When Candide is thrown out of his paradise, he travels the world, at times escaping persecution, and at others, searching for his love, Cunégonde, experiencing many horrific trials and suffering that challenge the philosophy entrenched by his tutor, causing him to question over and over, if this really is “the best of all possible worlds.”

I really whiffle-waffled over how I felt about this book.  On one hand, Voltaire can write a fast-moving, engaging tale.  His storyline was amusing and it did contain deeper themes that, if the reader had a strong attention span, challenged him to think about his view of the world, his place in society and his response to injustice.  Yet Voltaire’s method was rushed and honestly, just too absurd to ellict introspection for long.  Candide flew from one adventure to the other, characters threw philosophical comments around, but there was no time or room for philosophy itself.  Voltaire never took a thought or comment from a character into deeper conversation; he simply told the reader what the characters did or thought, but we weren’t privy to the conversation.  As a reader, you were often left swimming in a murky haze of Voltaire-imposed ignorance ……. Yet perhaps this was Voltaire’s intention.  Perhaps at the end of the book, as Candide states, “we must cultivate our garden,” Voltaire meant that we should all mind our own business, not examine things too closely, and just work with what is at hand.  Okay, but it is self-introspection that causes a human being to better himself, it is dialogue and discussion that can often help a society, as well as having the possibility to harm it.  People need to have hope, and to cultivate hope it often means having dreams that reach outside our immediate circle of life.  Within the light-hearted narrative that almost masked the tragedy, I felt a fatalism with which I could not accept or sympathize.

That said, these were only my impressions of a book that touches on topics of which I have a limited understanding.  To give an informed opinion on Voltaire’s stance, you would really need to have more than a cursory knowledge of Leibnizian Optimism, as well as having at least summary knowledge of his contemporaries, with a dollop of the study of the Enlightenment on top.  So I will count this as the beginning of my inquiry into the Enlightenment and Voltaire, and hope that my journey fairs better than the journey of Candide.  And until my next foray into Voltaire, I will be cultivating my garden.

Translated by Lowell Blair