Notes from Underground

Notes from Underground represents my transition from the novellas and stories of the heavy-hitter Russians to their longer and more involved work. The first section of Notes is a rebellion against the ideas of utopia and rationalism that were surging in popularity at the time, at least among the Russian intelligentsia. The Underground Man sees rationalism as a force that denies agency, and the strivings toward a utopia as another fall into determinism. An understanding of this part of the text informs one’s reading of the second, more narrative section. But this understanding is going to require at least a perfunctory knowledge of the dominant ideological currents in that time and place, so a few minutes of research is a good and worthwhile thing.

The character of the Underground Man is often read as some kind of existential hero, but this reading seems problematic to me. Dostoevsky is very much aware of the pitiful nature of his narrator and the purposelessness of his railings. While the Underground Man offers plenty of valid criticisms, he does not offer any kind of meaningful alternative, and there is no nobility in his self-imposed suffering, no matter how much he wishes there to be, or wishes to present things as such. He is sometimes brilliant, but also hopelessly dramatic and megalomaniac to the point of solipsism. Any argument for the Underground Man as an existential hero crumbles as soon as we come to the end of the book and follow his interactions with Liza.

But criticism of the character is not a condemnation of the book -some of my favorite heroes are antiheroes. The Underground Man is the perfect narrative device in that he allows Dostoevsky to critiques certain ideological foolishness with vitriolic ardor without getting his hands dirty, then expose and destroy the same agent of vitriol and everything that agent represents, all without damaging the original case made by the Underground Man. Add to this Dostoevsky’s underlauded black humor and the narrative urgency that he seems to be able to conjure out of nothing and you’ve got a damn good read, if you’re willing to put the time and and do a little Googling.


Recommendation: Read it, and look shit up! 


Dostoyevsky, The Gambler, and all the Big Important Russian Novels

I still have not read any of the Russian behemoths, but my experiences with the novellas of Tolstoy and now Dostoyevsky are making that a rather untenable position. The Gambler is as good a short novel as any, a masterclass in the writing of scenes and in the propulsion of plot. While certain stylistic anachronisms -the heavy use of cliffhanger chapter endings and exclamation marks, for example- read a bit badly, the book itself is a pleasure. The narrator isn’t fully “unreliable” in the modern sense of the trope, but his narrative is incomplete, seeming to lack certain unflattering details.

The Gambler also deserves high raise for its depiction of the act of gambling itself. Dostoyevsky was a compulsive player, and we even owe the existence of this book itself to one of his gambling debts, so his way of describing the play, the emotions and motivations behind it -it all rings very true. But to compliment his scenes of gaming as mere descriptive fidelity would be to far miss their value -the reader is powerfully drawn in by both the narrative and the way in which that narrative is accounted. Suspense is never used cheaply, and there is a compelling sense of urgency and immediacy in the reading which mirrors the frenetic need for play being depicted. And the strict absence of any superficial moralizing makes the moral and philosophical considerations here stand more proudly upright.

Whenever I find myself in the position of reviewing some part of the literary canon, I feel limited in what I might say. These reading logs are short and superficial by design -I can’t say anything in this medium that has not already been said many times about Dostoyevsky’s ability with prose. And, having read little else of his, I can’t make this a comparative review. The Gambler was a wonderful introduction, and I eagerly anticipate reading more.

Recommendation: Read it!

Heart of Darkness: Another Hike up the Literary Canon

Another piece of the canon that I’m just now getting to. Still not sure how I made it through my English undergrad without reading this. I guess professors are just sick of teaching it. Oh Well. Glad I’ve rectified my mistake.

I’m struck by how similar this reading experience was to my first reading of Moby-Dick in 2014. While there are some thematic similarities, (an oral storyteller waxing eloquent about his adventures on an aquatic vessel, seeking a legendary entity that takes on a mythological significance) they both resonated especially on the level of their respective influence. It’s impossible to read Heart of Darkness in a vacuum. So much of 20th/21st century art and storytelling has used either the ideas or the expression of Conrad’s work. As I read, I found myself remembering everything from contemporary literary fiction to Loony Toons. This novel has seeped so deeply into the collective unconsciousness that the entire narrative arc, the environmental foreboding, the prose stylings, and specific turns of phrase have become archetypal.

None of this diminishes the reading -it merely alters it. There is a reason this thing is a mainstay in academia. It’s perfectly paced, (what the hell happened to good pacing, anyhow?) memorable, and powerful in its language. There’s not much else to say. It clearly deserves its acclaim.

Recommendation: Read it if you haven’t. Read it again if it’s been awhile.

Tender is the Night and Re-reading Gatsby, or “Yes, Francis, We Know You Want to be Old Money”

I almost didn’t make it through Tender is the Night. I think I only pushed through the god-awful first act because the book is considered Fitzgerald’s best, and I wanted to be able to castigate the damn thing from a position of authority. Happily, the thing got much better after that insufferable kickoff.

I have this problem with Fitzgerald. Notice I did not say I have a problem with his writing -although I suppose I do, by extension. But his particular obsessions and carnivorous social aspirations seem to have left the man with an alarming lack of self-awareness, which he is able to overcome only by the virtue of being a really fucking good writer. As I reader, this entire situation is incredibly frustrating -I keep getting distracted by Fitzgerald’s desperate inner child, hungering for acceptance and recognition as it tugs on my sleeve and makes it impossible for me to appreciate more than a few of those wonderful sentences at a time.

Part of this has to do with the stakes -for the majority of these two novels, there isn’t anything at risk. None of this shit matters. I have no issue with reading about bad people behaving badly, (see my list of favorite books) but I have no interest if their bad behavior is completely meaningless, absent of consequence and lasting effect. There is only the most petty kind of drama in that, and both of these books require a lot of slogging to get to anything like an action of consequence (and I’m not using “consequence” in its moral sense here, but in the sense of one thing leading to some other result).

But I noticed how much more I preferred the act of reading Gatsby compared to Tender is the Night, which I found surprising, since I can subjectively say that Tender is the Night is the superior book. I think the act of re-reading a book flawed in this particular way is a bit more redeeming, because all of the previously unimportant interactions -while still completely without interesting consequence- provide a more codified system of behavior that inform those later moments of genuine consequence. Maybe people with my particular sensitivities just aren’t going to enjoy Fitzgerald on the first read. Since there are a few of his books out there that I have yet to read, I’m sure I will be able to test this hypothesis.

Recommendation: Read one. While Gatsby is more culturally relevant, Tender is the Night is a better book -if you can hang in through the first act. (Also, all of the covers for Gatsby look like shit for some reason. I have literally never seen a cover of The Great Gatsby I did not immediately dislike. If any of you are familiar with one, please show it to me.)

Great Gatsby (Scribner Classics)
by F. Scott Fitzgerald

Carl Jung’s “Psychology of the Unconscious” and the Value of Primary Texts

Jung’s seminal work is a treatise on the universal unconscious manifestations of the human libido, in religion, in art, and -most importantly- in religion and myth. Is there any reason for someone who is not involved in the study of the history of psychology to read a primary text like this, a (possibly) pseudo-scientific examination of the mind of mankind that is over one hundred years old, predating the wealth of information the modern age has provided us through fMRI scans and contemporary neurology? I would argue that there is.

Jung always strove to be considered a scientist, but his obsession with the study of mythology, the convergence of Eastern and Western philosophy, literature, and all manner of spiritualism (astrology, myth, alchemy) led many to construct a more mystical persona. Neither of these do him justice -Jung is, above all, a voracious student of the common truth behind the  stories Humanity tells itself. As such, his observations are not of a kind that is rendered obsolete by modern medicine. His driven inquisition into the greater mysteries revealed by the inescapably religious nature of storytelling man is just as important to consider in the 21st century as it was in the 20th. The man would have a wonderful time deconstructing the recent preoccupation with superhero movies…

As to the nature of reading primary texts, I have to admit that they occupy their own niche. Without a knowledge of the framework that has come to be built around his ideas (which includes everything from Joseph Campbell to our widespread cultural adaptation of the idea of “memes” from evolutionary biology) the primary text itself has a hard time standing on it’s own in 2015. Context is everything. At the same time, so much of modern thought can be traced back to the work of Jung, it seems to me that any reasonably intelligent person who is even remotely well-read or observant will find plenty in this book to grab onto.

Recommendation: Read it if you like the idea of knowing where so many of your schemas for understanding the world have come from, and if you don’t mind a few archaisms (and be sure to look up Onanism if you don’t already know what that means).

Moby-Dick: or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Canon


I’ve been hearing the advice to “toss out the canon” given to readers more and more of late (most recently in Austin Kleon’s email newsletter). While I agree that there are some wonderful books that are either too new or too overlooked to be considered part of the canon of Western literature, there’s also a reason that certain books are held in such high critical esteem, and not all novels are created equal. I’m not saying we should all read only dead white men, but I am saying that everybody ought to give Faulkner or T.S. Eliot a try at some point. The canon is there for a reason. This is why, as a grown-ass man who somehow got through high school and college (with a degree in English!) without doing so, I finally read Moby-Dick. Turns out it’s pretty good.

Moby-dick is like The Beatles; it’s almost impossible to experience the thing without having it obscured in some way by your knowledge of it’s derivatives. Virtually everything written in the 20th century was influenced in some way by Melville’s work. This was obvious as I was reading (the grim, repeated warning given to Ishmael and Queequeg seems to have birthed its own archetypal scene) but the novel functions so well as a novel the awareness of the tropes that it created begins to recede. The prose is so impressive, the characters are complex and always revealing some as-yet unseen aspect of themselves, and the narrative engages. It’s a book that has been thematically over-analyzed to a sometimes comical degree, but only because the ideas presented therein are powerful and resonant.

You can live a perfectly happy literary life and only read things written in the last fifty years, but there is something uniquely valuable in being classically literate. References have been described as “a hyperlink to a particular experience”. When someone makes a Scarface reference at a party, people get it. They get a picture of a situation that requires an entire film’s worth of narration, neatly summed up and called forth into being by the delivery of the phrase “say hello to my little friend” in someone’s best Tony Montana impression. The problem is that pop culture is transient, and can only be apply a transient value to literature. When Mary Shelley subtitles Frankenstein “The Modern Prometheus” that’s a better hyperlink, communicating vast nuance, emotion, and perspective in three little words -at least to anyone familiar with Greek mythology. The power of reference relies upon an awareness of certain cultural artifacts, and if you can’t appreciate the canon, you’re going through a life that plays in stereo with only one earphone.  Also, most of the canon is fucking good.