Tuesday, January 26, 2021

On Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoyevsky

I've read plenty of 'essential' works of literature, some even very old Russian ones that made me think and also moved me to my core. The greatest novels achieve both, they reach you through the mind and the heart. One of those novels was Dostoevsky's Notes From Underground. Another was Tolstoy's The Life and Death of Ivan Illyich. Crime and Punishment did the former, but not the latter. 

Why is it important for a work of literature to make you think and move you at the same time? Because there are aspects of life that we understand with our heads, and aspects of life that we can only understand viscerally, in our gut. The things we understand with our hearts are undeniably more true to life's experience, and therefore more meaningful. Crime and Punishment is a plodding episodic psychological novel filled with Russian formality, stilted dialogue and repressed melodrama but virtually no action except the initial crime. Raskolnikov's murder of a pawnbroker is coldblooded and impulsive, a desperate act that appears to be utterly ill-fated from the outset. The act strikes you as being so obviously misguided and out of the blue, which is perplexing since the perpetrator is a law student and portrayed initially as thoughtful and caring. I suppose this speaks to how desperate he is to rid himself of the guilt of feeling responsible for the support of his mother and sister who have sacrificed for his chance at success. But besides always being 'in a fever', the novel didn't succeed for me in conveying his desperation with any kind of emotional authenticity. The rest of the novel focuses largely on Raskolnikov's descent into madness, which my translation refers to as 'monomania' (a type manic single-mindedness according to my dictionary) and his making pronouncements of self-justification, which didn't seem very convincing to me. Yes, the novel raises some interesting questions, most famously, if, in the absence of God, moral determinants can reside solely in personal choice ("To go wrong in one's own way is better than to go right in someone else's.") About half way through there's an intriguing cat and mouse game between Raskolnikov and the principle police investigator who is a compelling chap with an oddly appealing demeanor. But most of the time the novel is a series of linked set pieces in which the characters confront each other and relate in awkward ways - my mind kept imagining the way actors in silent movies acted. One particularly painful (in the sense of weirdly awkward) scene has Raskolnikov confessing his crime to Sonya, a young girl who turned to prostitution to support her family. There is an uncomfortable pedophilic undercurrent to their exchange, even as she is meant to be Raskolnikov's confessor. Ultimately art has to make you care, after all, that's what it's for, and in a story this means to care for the protagonist and his dilemma. The problem with Raskolnikov is that he is so unrepentant for his actions, there is no dilemma, he just seems frantic, so the reader is kept at a distance. If you don't care about the characters because they all seem like stand-ins for philosophy and social commentary ie. a sister forced by circumstance to marry an unscrupulous rich man, the drunkard who leaves his family destitute, the impoverished daughter who must turn to prostitution etc. you are left feeling in the end like finishing the novel was akin to doing your homework - at least you can say you've done the job. I must say though, Dostoevesky really nails what I'm talking about in the novel's Epilogue when an imprisoned Raskolnikov finally begins to see the light: "Life had stepped into the place of theory and something quite different would work itself out in his mind." Now that would be a novel I'd like to read, but alas, as he says in the very last lines, that's the subject of another story.

Thursday, January 21, 2021

The most American Americans

I've had one thought that keeps repeating in my mind over the last few weeks: African-Americans are the most American Americans. When they voted in massive numbers this past election, they stood up for the world's first, oldest constitutional democracy - America, the country that treated them as less than human, as property, for most of its existence. African-Americans have quite literally saved America from autocracy, they saved America from itself. When Obama was elected president, I thought that America had crossed a monumental racial and political barrier erected by its history. Not that Americans had crashed through that barrier, or eliminated it, but that this barrier had been decisively crossed. trump's presidency I think proved me more right than wrong, because it showed that there was a racially motivated constituency that could resist the tide forcefully. They had pushed back forcefully against Obama throughout his term in office. They had tried to politically render his administration impotent, and was quite successful. This constituency was and remains a minority of the country, but unfortunately the American political system is skewed enough at this point to elect a minority to power, hence trump's victory. Biden's election I believe is more significant than Obama's from this perspective: It's one thing for huge numbers of African American folks to become politically activated to elect one of their own, which was groundbreaking. It's even more earth-shattering for huge numbers of African-Americans to come together in massive numbers to elect a white man for president to represent them. What I mean is that, as the first African-American POTUS, Obama had to be careful not to seem like he was favouring African Americans with his policies and treatment. He made extra efforts to act like the President of all Americans. Biden has no such worries. Biden unquestionably owes his election to African-Americans. From Rep. James Clyburn who literally, almost single-handedly, pulled Biden's campaign out of the gutter during the primaries, to the voters of Milwaukee, Detroit, Atlanta and Philadelphia who handed him the presidency and eventually the Democrats control of the Senate. Biden's choice of Kamala Harris I believe was an acknowledgement of how key the African-American constituency was going to be for his success. But in my mind the political tide had really turned during the massive nationwide BLM protests during the summer set off by the murder of George Floyd. The manifestations were multi-racial in nature with almost as many white faces as black. And watching the protests grow over the course of months, and how utterly tone deaf and inept trump's response to the discord was, I felt a palpable sense of how the zeitgeist had shifted. It was during this summer of protests that I felt sure for the first time (as sure as anyone can be about such things) that trump was going to lose the election. It wasn't the pandemic that turned the tide, it wasn't the economy in shambles, or the lies and the incompetence of the administration, it was the widespread public sense that America was systemically racist, that the police unjustly targeted and victimized African-Americans, and that this mattered to all Americans and they wanted it to change. I'd always thought that pocketbook issues determined elections, the economy, jobs and taxes, but for the first time it seemed to be a pervasive sense of social injustice that was going to determine this one. Americans could not longer stomach seeing themselves and their nation (and their political representatives) in the indecent and inhuman image of an African American man being suffocated to death under the knee of a white cop. The image was just too real, too resonant, and too personal, no matter what your skin colour may be.

Saturday, January 16, 2021

A Nation At War

I keep promising myself not to post any more about trump. I know that I can't promise I will never post again about the miserable, destructive legacy of his time in office. But I can promise that this will be my last post during his presidency, which thankfully comes to an end this coming Wednesday at noon. This morning we woke up to a scene in Washington DC that has not happened in more than 150 years. A city patrolled by armed military personnel twenty-five thousand strong. Fencing, barriers with barbed wire and checkpoints dividing the city into red zones and green zones, you'd think you were in war-torn Baghdad. There are in fact five times more US troops today stationed in Washington DC than in Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria combined. Last evening a Virginia man was apprehended, a would-be assassin carrying a loaded handgun and packed with 500 rounds of ammunition and a fake inauguration pass trying to cross a DC police checkpoint. What does all of this signify in the final days of the trump presidency? The nation is indeed at war, at war with itself. The military fortification of the capital exemplifies how beaten and weak four years of trump has left the nation.

Tuesday, January 5, 2021

Lies and truth

We all tell lies, and do it for all kinds of reasons. Lies are useful, malleable, durable and powerful. We tell lies to ourselves and to others. We tell them to avoid responsibility and consequences, to manipulate people, to hide things, to sell things, and to get what we want. We also tell them to spare the feelings of the people we care about. But lies are particularly popular with people who want to gain the upper hand, because they want to have an advantage - knowledge of the truth - that others do not possess. Lies are powerful and need to be handled with great care. They are double-edged and can backfire spectacularly, generating profound and long lasting damage to the liar. Ironically, lies are also made of fragile material, once exposed they can collapse quickly - one lie usually requires reinforcement with more lies. Lying comes with great risk because it can multiply and grow into a crushing burden one must carry. Also my brother wisely pointed out to me, a lie can spread inside like a cancer, it can destroy from within. 

Sometimes it's easier to believe lies than face the truth. Sometimes it's easier to accept lies than seek the truth. Sometimes it's easier to defend lies than fight for the truth. Sometimes lies make us feel good about our circumstances, give us reasons to blame others for our misfortunes. Sometimes lies give us an excuse to be angry and to hate, and that can make us feel good. Sometimes lies make us feel like we're part of the team because so many others are lying, and the truth can be a lonely place. Sometimes we get rewarded for lying, so we lie even when we know the truth. Lies are for the weak, the cowardly, the duplicitous, the lazy, the unprincipled, the gullible, the ignorant, the foolish, the corrupt. 

"You can not lie your way to freedom," says Timothy Snyder. To define freedom as believing whatever it is you want to believe, whether or not it has any connection to facts, is incorrect. The fundamental characteristic of truth is that it is independent of belief. Seeking truth is the same as seeking independence. Lies are by definition the fabrication of others, done for their purposes whether they be personal, political, economic etc. Therefore believing lies makes you dependent on the liars. It's a kind of servitude. Be a truth seeker if you want independence, seek truth if you want freedom.