Sunday, 30 March 2014

Best line in "Pride and prejudice"

"Nothing is more deceitful than the appearance of humility. It is often only carelessness of opinion, and sometimes an indirect boast." 
(says Mr Darcy in "Pride and prejudice" by Jane Austen) 

Saturday, 29 March 2014

We all must die

People usually don't think of death until they face it, or wait for it. And if they don't think of death, they perhaps don't think of life either. 
I do think of death, but it's phony. More like I think of death as something abstract, something symbolic, unreal, something like an escape, in moments of depression, not Death, which will come some day, perhaps even tomorrow. After all, I have no experience- I've never come particularly close to death or seen a dead body. I'm well aware, with all my thoughts and talks about death, when the moment comes that I may die, such as having an accident, falling somewhere, being diagnosed with some disease, my 1st reaction will be fear, followed by the natural instinct to have hope and try to save myself, get out of that situation, if possible. 
Because whenever on the verge of 'doing it' (you know what I mean), I get confused and start thinking what if there are solutions, what if there's hope, what if there's more to life. More to life? Like what? I can't say, but I'm alive anyway, which may be good enough. 
Anyhow, "The death of Ivan Ilyich" is such a stark yet beautiful and touching story- having read it, I can't help fearing that 1 day I'll have to go through such last moments. The thought is unbearable. The only good thing is that I'm young enough to prevent it.

(The story's not about Ivan Ilyich's death- that is, the moment life leaves him and he turns from a person into a corpse- but his dying, his last days, and all the thoughts that occupy him during those days about the course of his own life). 

Notes on "The death of Ivan Ilyich"'m reading "The death of Ivan Ilyich".
This novella is included in the Norton critical edition of Tolstoy's short fiction, edited by Michael R. Katz.

The book I borrowed from my university, somebody underlined and scribbled in it (let call this person X). The 1st time is when Praskovya addresses somebody as Jean, who should be her husband Ivan. X underlined the name Jean and wrote beside it "Ivan?" I made a right guess- Jean is the French equivalent of the name Ivan, which is itself the Russian equivalent of the name John in English. It's like Pyotr, Peter and Pierre are different versions of the same name.
The 2nd time, X underlined the clause "she told him she was doing for herself what she actually was doing for herself" and wrote "?" next to it.
One should look at the whole thing:
"When the examination was over the doctor looked at his watch, and then Praskovya Fedorovna announced to Ivan Ilyich that it was of course as he pleased, but she had sent today for a celebrated specialist who would examine him and have a consultation with Mikhail Danikovich (their regular doctor).
'Please don't raise any objections. I'm doing this for my own sake', she said ironically, letting it be felt that she was doing it all for his sake and only said this to leave him no right to refuse. He remained silent, knitting his brows. He felt that he was surrounded and involved in such a mesh of falsity that it was hard to unravel anything.
Everything she did for him was entirely for her own sake, she told him she was doing for herself what she actually was doing for herself, as if that was so incredible he must understand the opposite." 
This bit is in fact clear. I would call it a case of double irony- the irony of a person who means to say something ironically and ends up telling the truth, with or without awareness of it. In the next page Tolstoy writes "Praskovya Fedorovna came in, self-satisfied but with a rather guilty air. She sat down and asked how he was, but, as he saw, only for the sake of asking and not in order to learn about it, knowing that there was nothing to learn". The "ask for the sake of asking, not for the answer" thing I've seen in F. Scott Fitzgerald's short story "May day", I've also seen in real life (or felt so at least), and perhaps done it at least once myself. People sometimes ask "How are you?", "Are you OK?", "What's wrong?"... not because they'd like to know how it's going with the other person, but because they feel that they should ask so (the same goes for questions like "What do you think?", "Is it all right?", "Do you mind?" in some cases). Similarly, in the former passage, Praskovya hardly cares about Ivan's condition- she says something that is meant to be understood as an irony, so that Ivan cannot refuse, and if he refuses to see the specialist, she has the right to put the blame on him when his condition worsens, as she has always blamed him, but the thing she says is actually the truth, for she doesn't care about him, like somebody urges a sick person to find a doctor and get better not because they genuinely wish the sick person to get better but rather because the sick person is a burden, or a nuisance, and at the same time, whilst asking for doctors and specialists, she can tell people that she has done her task and fulfilled her role and that anything that goes wrong is due to him alone, and at the same time she can feel good about herself, having done what she should. 
These lines are the most insightful ones in this story, but then, the whole story so far is perfection, as expected. 
Reading books that aren't brand new, by the way, can be rather nice. Some people might underline, stress important points, make notes or jot down some thoughts.  

(Note: The picture is taken from

Tuesday, 25 March 2014

Random this or that

Totally pointless. But hey, why don't you do the same thing?

Cats or dogs? Both.
Lev Tolstoy or Fyodor Dostoyevsky? Both.
Day or night? Day.
Summer or winter? Summer.
Spring or fall? Spring.
Science or art? Art.
Tea or coffee? Coffee.
Rain or snow? Rain.
"Harry Potter" or "Lord of the rings"? "Harry Potter".
Chocolate or vanilla? Chocolate.
Myspace or facebook? Facebook.
Coke or pepsi? Coke.
Fanta or Solo? Neither.
Olympics or World Cup (soccer)? World Cup.
Pancakes or waffles? Waffles.
Ketchup or mustard? Ketchup.
Rice or bread? Rice.
Rock or rap? Rock.
Batman or Superman? Neither.
TV shows or movies? Movies.
Literature or cinema? Both.
The Beatles or The Rolling Stones? The Beatles.
Beer or wine? Neither.
Jane Austen or Charles Dickens? Jane Austen.
Anne Hathaway or Jennifer Lawrence? Anne Hathaway.
Shower or bath? Bath.
7up or Sprite? Neither.
Blue or green? Blue.
Apples or bananas? Both.
Chicken or beef? Chicken.
F. Scott Fitzgerald or Ernest Hemingway? Fitzgerald.
Sunrise or sunset? Sunset.
Eminem or 50 Cent? Eminem.
Birds or horses? Birds.
Fork and knife or chopsticks? Both.
Hamburgers or hotdogs? Hotdogs.
Federico Fellini or Michelangelo Antonioni? Fellini.
Trains or planes? Planes.
Nachos or French fries? French fries.
Blonde or brunette? Brunette.
Beach or pool? Beach.
Andersen or Grimm bros? Andersen.
Sausages or lạp xưởng? Lạp xưởng.
Circuses or carnivals? Carnivals.
Emo or gothic? Neither.
Trousers or dresses? Trousers.
Rural or urban? Urban.
Tan or pale? Tan.
Ice cream or yoghurt? Yoghurt.
Boots or sandals? Boots.
Jazz or classical? Classical.
Baseball or basketball? Basketball.
Crossword puzzles or sudokus? Sudokus.
Antique or brand new? Depends.
James Bond or Jason Bourne? Bourne.
Peanut butter or jelly? Peanut butter.
Detailed or abstract? Detailed.
Call or text? Text.
Spicy or mild? Spicy.
Roller coaster or Ferris wheel? Roller coaster (maybe).
Leather or denim? Denim.
Aldous Huxley or George Orwell? Orwell.
Raisins or nuts? Nuts.
Fiction or nonfiction? Fiction.
William Faulkner or Vladimir Nabokov? Both.
(Western) animation or anime? Animation.
Comics or manga? Neither.
Hunting or fishing? Neither (hunting sounds more fun).
Dancing or singing? Dancing.
Grammys or Oscars? Oscars.
Salt or sugar? Salt.
Paperback or ebook? Paperback.
Gums or candies? Gums.
Jeans or sweatpants? Jeans.
Scarves or hats? Both.
Descartes or Hume? Hume.
Deontology or utilitarianism? Mix.
Vivien Leigh or Hedy Lamarr? Vivien.
Laurence Olivier or Marlon Brando? Marlon Brando.
Arabic or Chinese? Chinese.
French or Spanish? French.
Bury or cremate? Cremate.
Gun or knife? Gun.
Sword or bow and arrows? Bow and arrows.
Vampires or werewolves? Vampires (true vampires, not Edward Cullen type).
Crime (whodunit) or romance (whoendsupwithwhom)? Crime. 
English English or American English? English English. 

Sunday, 23 March 2014

Some offensive Norwegian commercials

Offensive and perhaps even counterproductive.
1/ OBOS:

You can go to this site to read about OBOS:
To sum it up, this is a Nordic cooperative building association. The motif of their commercials is indirectly advertising OBOS by having characters (Americans and Italians) protesting against OBOS, in other words, by parodying other societies.
The American commercials among these are more acceptable, as they critique capitalism and the inequality in the US. The Italian ones, on the other hand, can be offensive, for they exploit stereotypes, attack and make fun of Italian culture and lifestyle, which is another way of saying that only the Norwegian way is right, especially when after showing several ridiculous Italian families, they have a Norwegian guy standing in his house.

2/ Grilstad:

For people who don't speak Norwegian, in the scene after Gisse (the pig) disappears, the little girl asks where Gisse is and, as the camera moves to the father, the voice-over says that of course you don't do that.
In the next scene, the family play with the pig and, at the same time, eat bacon. 
Is this meant to say that you can just keep and play with your pig, and then eat someone else's pig meat? Isn't that a bit weird? 
(In case anyone is wondering, I don't eat dogs, or cats).

3/ Stabburet: 
I haven't found this video on youtube yet. 
What happens is that at the beginning a Norwegian girl is shown desperately trying to eat something with chopsticks and then clumsily dropping everything. The voice-over and the line on the screen say "Lei av thai? Gå for pai!" (Tired of Thai? Go for pie!) In the next scene, she's happily eating her Stabburet pie. 
I'm aware that 1, they need a rhyme ("thai" and "pai") and 2, Stabburet does have some Thai soup, but, having considered these 2 points, I still feel that the commercial has some xenophobic undertone.

There can be more. Generally I don't like Norwegian commercials, which are often vulgar, humourless, pointless, unrelated to the products, or even disgusting. The ones above are rather new, especially the last 2, and particularly problematic. Interpretation now is up to you, I will not add more comments.

Saturday, 22 March 2014

"Fathers and sons"

I've finished reading "Fathers and sons".
It is a mistake (some people make, including a blogger I've seen just now) to say that Turgenev's characters represent the 2 generations and embody the 2 modes of thinking and living in Russia at the time. One can look at the 3 old men Nikolai Petrovich and Pavel Petrovich Kirsanov and Vasily Ivanovich Bazarov and see how different they are. Calling Evgeny Vasilich Bazarov a caricature is even more incomprehensible, who, in spite of his strict nihilism and extreme philosophical and social views, has various shades in his personality and so many self-contradictions, who does things against his own character, who evokes in me so different emotions from aversion to pity and even some attraction and sympathy. Turgenev's depiction of Bazarov is at his best in 2 things, the 1st time when Bazarov blushes, gets uncomfortable and finds himself charmed by and later in love with Anna Odintsova, the 2nd time when he, in some last chapters, talks to peasants, imagining himself to be close to them and to understand them, unlike the aristocrats, only to find himself being mistaken. The 1st point shows that, in spite of his cynicism, in spite of the belief in his own greatness and his extraordinary mind, he's still a human being, a man, like anyone else. The 2nd point, more interestingly, shows how delusional, barren, mistaken and theoretical he is (which, I must note, reminds of Tolstoy, who is always and forever an aristocrat under the peasant's clothes). In the end, he's still empty. And yet, I say this not with contempt, not with hatred. I'm both attracted to him and repulsed by him, and sorry for him.
Bazarov, in short, is the most well-developed character in this novel.
To be fair, all characters are natural and convincing, including Bazarov's mother Arina, even if her sentimental, melodramatic tendency makes her a caricature. But, in addition to Bazarov, I find Anna Odintsova particularly interesting. At 1st, the attraction between her and Bazarov seems to be opposite attraction, with her being aristocratic, well-mannered, sticking to order, loving literature... and him being a nihilist and a detractor of arts. The more they disagree, the more they are drawn to each other. Apparently, it also has to do with Anna's physical attraction, a kind of power that makes such a bold man as Bazarov shy. However, as it turns out later, they're more alike than one thinks. Both are tired and cynical. Unfortunately the very thing that links them is also what destroys them and makes it impossible for them to be with each other.
After reading this book, I've also read Turgenev's "Apropos of "Father and sons"" and some of his letters to writers and critics. I agree with him that a writer doesn't have to choose a stance or make it clear whether he praises or makes fun of his main character. As it happens, some people criticise him for glorification of nihilism, whilst some others, for condemnation of it. This is the reason I prefer fiction to nonfiction, in nonfiction the writer, whilst discussing both sides, has a stance and expresses their opinions and thoughts, whilst in fiction the writer is more suggesting, more inclusive/ambivalent, vague. 
This is 1 of my favourite bits from "Apropos...": 
"1 more bit of advice to young writers and 1 last request. My friends, never justify yourself no matter how you may be slandered; don't try to clear up misunderstandings, don't try either to say 'the final word' or to listen to it. Do your work- everything will sort itself later. In any case, 1st let a long period of time pass- and then look at all the rubbish of the past from the historical point of view, as I have tried to do now. Let the following example serve to guide you..." 
And this is taken from a letter from Turgenev to Countess Lambert: 
"It recently occurred to me that there's something tragic in the fate of almost every person- it's just that the tragic is often concealed from a person by the banal surface of life. One who remains on the surface (and there are many of them) often fails even to suspect that he's the hero of a tragedy. A woman will complain of indigestion and not even know that what she means is that her whole life has been shattered. For example: all around me here are peaceful, quiet existences, yet if you take a close look- you see something tragic in each of them- something either their own, or imposed on them by history, by the development of the nation."  
To conclude, I'd like to quote Edmund Wilson, from his "On translating Turgenev": 
"The work of Turgenev has, of course, no scope that is comparable to Tolstoy's or Dostoyevsky's, but the 10 volumes collected by him for his edition of 1883 (he omitted his early poems) represent a literary achievement of the concentratedly "artistic" kind that has few equals in 19th-century fiction. There are moments, to be sure, in Turgenev novels- "On the eve" and "Virgin soil"- when they become a little thin or unreal, but none can be called a failure, and one cannot find a single weak piece, unless one becomes impatient with "Enough", in the whole 4 volumes of stories. No fiction writer can be read through with a steadier admiration. Greater novelists are more uneven: they betray our belief with extravagances; they bore or they fall into bathos; they combine poetic vision with rubbish. But Turgenev hardly even skirts these failings, and he is never mediocre; his texture is as distinguished as his temperament." 

On Virginia Woolf on Turgenev

Fragmentary, superficial, badly-expressed thoughts on chapter 5 "Turgenev: A passion for art" from "Virginia Woolf and the Russian Point of View" by Roberta Rubenstein (

1/ The Russian trinity here is Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky and Turgenev. I find it better than to refer to the 1st 2 and Chekhov. Comparing novelists and short fiction writers is problematic.
2/ Like Virginia Woolf, I'm 1 of those who appreciate Turgenev "more for his formal artistry than for his political or social commentary".
3/ In 1 aspect, Tolstoy and Turgenev are opposites. Tolstoy, in his works, is like an omniscient God, seeing everything from the largest, most epic scenes to the smallest gestures, the tiniest glances that easily go unnoticed, and all that goes through his characters' minds. Anyone who has read Tolstoy knows what I mean, I lack the words to praise him as he deserves. Turgenev isn't like that, and it is proof that he's not as great, but his books "leave behind the impression that they contain a large world in which there is ample room for men and women of full size and the sky above and the fields around". His economy of style is suggesting, leaving room for the readers to fill in.
4/ Virginia Woolf praises his "power of suggesting emotion by scenery... All the lines rubbed out except the necessary". She also praises "his method of drawing from details in the natural world to suggest mood and feeling".
(This, strangely enough, makes me think of F. Scott Fitzgerald).
5/ "The superficial impression deepens and sharpens itself as the pages are turned. The scene has the size out of all proportion to its length. It expands the mind and lies there giving off fresh ideas, emotions, and pictures much as a moment in real life which sometimes only yield its meaning long after it has passed". 
This is 1 of those times when I lament the inadequacy of my language and then find someone express my exact thoughts.
6/ She, similar to what I've said in my 'theory', says that a novelist can't be a politician and can't believe in 1 cause only.
7/ As Virginia Woolf notes, Turgenev's characters don't have to speak in order to make us feel their presence.
8/ Never stop observing. Pay attention to everything.
9/ According to Roberta Rubenstein, Virginia Woolf comes to prefer Turgenev, with his "artistic restraint, his sensitivity to beauty and his lyrical sensibility", to Dostoyevsky. 
To me, Dostoyevsky is thought-provoking, Turgenev touches the heart.

Will come back to this chapter when I read more works by Turgenev, to see if my view will remain the same. Virginia Woolf's essays on literature are always satisfying.

Friday, 21 March 2014

On Bazarov, the 1st Russian literary nihilist

Oh how I detest Bazarov. That annoyingly arrogant, sarcastic, cynical, narrow-minded, philistine, materialistic, shallow, mundane, egoistic, insensitive, conceited nihilist! That philistine who denounces art and all spiritual things, respects nothing, understands nothing, attacks everything that he calls romanticism, scorns emotion/ affection and expression of it and sees everyone else as inferior and backward! That idiot who compares human beings to trees, doesn't care about the individual and doesn't see all the light and shade of life! And yet I feel sorry for him, and pity him, when he finds himself falling in love with Anna Odintsova, realises in himself something of which he never thinks himself capable and even feels ashamed of such 'romanticism', such 'sentimentality'. It's a kind of pity one has for a childish, naive, inexperienced person who has neither gone through anything in life nor learnt about other people's experiences and expanded his own mind through literature, more importantly, a person who has no self-understanding and who has no courage to accept himself and come to terms with himself. 
I go back and forth between hating him and feeling sorry for him. 
Turgenev's portrayal of Bazarov is superb. 

Update at 6pm: 
I was a bit excited, perhaps. 
To be fair, Bazarov has his assets. He's simple, casual, frank, straightforward, progressive in some aspects, which makes others comfortable around him, especially those of the lower class. Proud, independent, unabashed, not seeing why he should feel ashamed of his lack of luxury, and not bowing to anyone. Self-important and conceited indeed, but not particularly pretentious. He can also be kind and friendly, as he helps other people as a doctor, and treats Fenechka nicely, removes her discomfort about her situation. Whilst I can't stand him because of his philistinism, his rejection of artistic and spiritual things, his insensitivity and extreme nihilism, I support him in some aspects, such as his attack on the idleness and pretentiousness of the aristocrats, his liberal view on marriage, his wish to be useful and mockery of Pavel Petrovich's 'collapse' after a failed relationship, etc. Bazarov, moreover, appears more pleasant, democratic when placed next to the ridiculous, intolerant dandy Pavel Petrovich Kirsanov. 
His boldness might be seen as appealing. 
I feel that as long as politics and philosophy are avoided, he could be an OK person, more tolerable than someone like Pavel Petrovich. 

Thursday, 20 March 2014

"How—and How Not—to Love Mankind" (Theodore Dalrymple): Ivan Turgenev and Karl Marx

A brilliant essay on the similarities and differences between Turgenev and Marx, which, interestingly enough, is related to that 'theory' I have after reading "Invisible man" (the artist's mind vs the politician's mind):

"... Two great European writers of the nineteenth century, Ivan Turgenev and Karl Marx, illustrate this diversity with vivid clarity. Both were born in 1818 and died in 1883, and their lives paralleled each other almost preternaturally in many other respects as well. They nevertheless came to view human life and suffering in very different, indeed irreconcilable, ways—through different ends of the telescope, as it were. Turgenev saw human beings as individuals always endowed with consciousness, character, feelings, and moral strengths and weaknesses; Marx saw them always as snowflakes in an avalanche, as instances of general forces, as not yet fully human because utterly conditioned by their circumstances. Where Turgenev saw men, Marx saw classes of men; where Turgenev saw people, Marx saw the People. These two ways of looking at the world persist into our own time and profoundly affect, for better or for worse, the solutions we propose to our social problems.
Both men were known for their sympathy with the downtrodden and oppressed. But for all their similarities of education and experience, the quality of each man’s compassion could not have been more different: for while one’s, rooted in the suffering of individuals, was real, the other’s, abstract and general, was not.
Clearly "Mumu" is an impassioned protest against the exercise of arbitrary power of one person over another, but it is not politically schematic. Though it is obviously directed against serfdom, the story does not suggest that cruelty is the prerogative of feudal landowners alone, and that if only serfdom were abolished, no vigilance against such cruelty would be necessary. If power is a permanent feature of human relationships—and surely only adolescents and certain kinds of intellectuals, Marx included, could imagine that it is not—then "Mumu" is a permanent call to compassion, restraint, and justice in its exercise. That is why "Mumu" does not lose its power to move 140 years after the abolition of serfdom in Russia; while it refers to a particular place at a particular time, it is also universal.
In making his general point, Turgenev does not suggest that his characters are anything but individuals, with their own personal characteristics. He does not see them just as members of a group or class, caused by oppression to act in predetermined ways like trams along their rails: and his careful observation of even the humblest of them is the most powerful testimony possible to his belief in their humanity. Grand aristocrat that he was, and acquainted with the greatest minds of Europe, he did not disdain to take seriously the humblest peasant, who could not hear or speak. Turgenev’s oppressed peasants were fully human beings, endowed with free will and capable of moral choice.
Nor does Turgenev believe that the people who are subject to the power of the landowner are, by virtue of their oppression, noble. They are scheming and conniving and sometimes thoughtlessly cruel, too.
Turning from Turgenev to Marx (although the Manifesto appears under the names of both Marx and Engels, it was almost entirely Marx’s work), we enter a world of infinite bile—of rancor, hatred, and contempt—rather than of sorrow or compassion. It is true that Marx, like Turgenev, is on the side of the underdog, of the man with nothing, but in a wholly disembodied way. Where Turgenev hopes to lead us to behave humanly, Marx aims to incite us to violence. Moreover, Marx brooked no competitors in the philanthropic market. He was notoriously scathing about all would-be practical reformers: if lower class, they lacked the philosophic training necessary to penetrate to the causes of misery; if upper class, they were hypocritically trying to preserve "the system." Only he knew the secret of turning the nightmare into a dream.
The Manifesto makes no mention of individual human life, except to deny its possibility under present conditions. True, Marx mentions a few authors by name, but only to pour heavily Teutonic scorn and contumely upon them. For him, there are no individuals, or true humans, at all. "In bourgeois society capital is independent and has individuality, while the living person is dependent and has no individuality."
It is no wonder, then, that Marx speaks only in categories: the bourgeois, the proletarian. For him, individual men are but clones, their identity with vast numbers of others being caused not by the possession of the same genes, but by that of the same relations to the economic system. Why study a man, when you know Men?
There is no mistaking the hatred and rage of these words; but anger, while a real and powerful emotion, is not necessarily an honest one, nor is it by any means always ungratifying. There is a permanent temptation, particularly for intellectuals, to suppose that one’s virtue is proportional to one’s hatred of vice, and that one’s hatred of vice is in turn to be measured by one’s vehemence of denunciation. But when Marx wrote these words, he must surely have known that they were, at best, a savage caricature, at worst a deliberate distortion calculated to mislead and to destroy.
His lack of interest in the individual lives and fates of real human beings—what Mikhail Bakunin once called his lack of sympathy with the human race—shines out in his failure to recognize the often noble attempts by workingmen to maintain a respectable family life in the face of the greatest difficulties. Was it really true that they had no family ties, and that their children were mere articles of commerce? For whom were they mere articles of commerce? It is typical of Marx’s unrigorous mind that he should leave the answer ambiguous, as if commerce could exist independently of the people carrying it on. Only his outrage, like the grin of the Cheshire cat, is clear.
Marx’s firm grasp of unreality is also evident in his failure to imagine what would happen when, through the implementation of the ideas of radical intellectuals influenced by his mode of thinking, the bourgeois family really would break down, when "the practical absence of the family" really would become an undeniable social fact. Surely the increased sexual jealousy, the widespread child neglect and abuse, and the increase in the interpersonal violence (all in conditions of unprecedented material prosperity) should have been utterly predictable to anybody with a deeper knowledge than his of the human heart.
Compare Marx’s crudity with Turgenev’s subtlety, alluded to by Henry James, who knew Turgenev in Paris and wrote an essay about him a year after his death: "Like all men of a large pattern, he was composed of many different pieces; and what was always striking in him was the mixture of simplicity with the fruit of the most various observation. . . . I had [once] been moved to say of him that he had the aristocratic temperament: a remark which in the light of further knowledge seemed singularly inane. He was not subject to any definition of that sort, and to say that he was democratic would be (though his political ideal was democracy) to give an equally superficial account of him. He felt and understood the opposite sides of life; he was imaginative, speculative, anything but literal. . . . Our Anglo-Saxon, Protestant, moralistic, conventional standards were far away from him, and he judged things with a freedom and spontaneity in which I found a perpetual refreshment. His sense of beauty, his love of truth and right, were the foundation of his nature; but half the charm of his conversation was that one breathed an air in which cant phrases and arbitrary measurements simply sounded ridiculous."
I don’t think anyone could have said this of Marx. When he wrote that "the workingmen have no country. We cannot take from them what they have not got," he wrote as a man who, as far as is known, had never taken the trouble to canvass the living views of anyone but himself. His pronouncement of the death of nationalist feeling was premature, to say the least. And when he wrote that the bourgeois would lament the cultural loss that the proletarian revolution inevitably entailed, but that "that culture . . . is, for the enormous majority, a mere training to act as a machine," he failed to acknowledge the profoundly moving attempts of workingmen in Britain to acquire that very culture as a liberating and ennobling agency. It needs very little effort of the imagination to understand what fortitude it took to work in a Victorian factory by day and read Ruskin and Carlyle, Hume and Adam Smith by night, as so many workingmen did (volumes from their lending libraries and institutes are still to be found in British secondhand bookshops); but it was an effort that Marx was never prepared to make, because he did not consider it worthwhile to make it. One might ask whether he has not set a pattern for hordes of cultivated brutes in the academy, who have destroyed for others what they themselves have benefited from.
Very different from all this, the sympathy that Turgenev expressed for the downtrodden was for living, breathing human beings. Because he understood what Henry James called "the opposite sides of life," he understood that there was no denouement to history, no inevitable apocalypse, after which all contradictions would be resolved, all conflicts cease, when men would be good because arrangements were perfect, and when political and economic control would turn into mere administration for the benefit of everyone without distinction. Marx’s eschatology, lacking all common sense, all knowledge of human nature, rested on abstractions that were to him more real than the actual people around him. Of course, Turgenev knew the value of generalizations and could criticize institutions such as serfdom, but without any silly utopian illusions: for he knew that Man was a fallen creature, capable of improvement, perhaps, but not of perfection. There would therefore be no hecatombs associated with Turgenev’s name.
Marx claimed to know Man, but as for men other than his enemies—he knew them not. Despite being a Hegelian dialectician, he was not interested in the opposite sides of life. Neither kindness nor cruelty moved him: men were simply the eggs from which a glorious omelette would one day be made. And he would be instrumental in making it.
When we look at our social reformers—their language, their concerns, their style, the categories in which they think—do they resemble Marx or Turgenev more? Turgenev—who wrote a wonderful essay entitled "Hamlet and Don Quixote," a title that speaks for itself—would not have been surprised to discover that the Marxist style had triumphed.
Let us recall, however, one detail of Turgenev’s and Marx’s biographical trajectory in which they differed. When Marx was buried, hardly anyone came to his funeral (in poetic revenge, perhaps, for his failure to attend the funeral of his father, who adored and sacrificed much for him). When the remains of Turgenev returned to St. Petersburg from France, scores of thousands of people, including the humblest of the humble, turned out to pay their respects—and with very good reason." 

(Theodore Dalrymple)

A few lines on Ivan Turgenev

Turgenev is a delight!
I'm more than halfway through "Fathers and sons". 
I reckon I'm not the only one who feels the absurd need to compare him to other Russian giants. Now, place him next to Tolstoy, of course Turgenev's overshadowed; one stands in awe of the formidable, marvellous, impressive Tolstoy, who intrigues us, captivates us, overwhelms us, blows us away and afterwards leaves a strong, deep impression. 
But then, how many writers can be compared to Tolstoy? We, obviously, can't dismiss a writer because he's not a Tolstoy. Turgenev's at his best in nature descriptions, he also depicts wonderfully the different characters, various types of people, the conflicts between 2 generations and 2 ways of thinking and 2 political, philosophical views, the father-and-son relationships, the contradictions within each character... At 1st, there seems to be nothing remarkable about this book, but gradually one enjoys the flow, notices the masterful characterisations and sees the author's insight and sensitivity in his simplicity. In temperament he seems more similar to Chekhov, for he describes and tells the story and presents his characters in a calm, objective, neutral way, without moralising, without taking side, without showing much of his opinions, without letting politics interfere with his art, without distracting the readers' attention from the story with lengthy lectures. Inferior to Tolstoy in some aspects, Turgenev gains points for not having Tolstoy's didacticism and, perhaps, pomposity. And it may be early to tell, but methinks he doesn't share Tolstoy's extreme views, naivete and idealism either. More moderate, he presents the characters as they are (I will write more about them later). 
Comparing him to Dostoyevsky is more difficult. I place Tolstoy, Chekhov and Turgenev in the same camp, Dostoyevsky in another (together with Kafka, for instance). On the 1 hand, I believe that to most people (including myself) Dostoyevsky wins, who's also impressive and formidable in his way, with the themes and big ideas in his books and his exploration of the human psyche. On the other hand, I can understand the people who see Turgenev as superior, such as Nabokov, Henry James, Joseph Conrad, etc. because Dostoyevsky lacks a polished style and has lots of flaws as a writer, he's great as a thinker, a mystic, whilst Turgenev is, how to put it, more sensitive to the various shades of life, individuals. His works also have more balance, constraint, coherence, artistry. Reading Turgenev, I don't feel like I'm struggling through some unbearable parts and tolerating them for the sake of the whole as when reading "Crime and punishment", and less often, when reading "Notes from underground". 
Which is to say, the serene and gentle Turgenev is overshadowed by Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky, but that is unfortunate- Turgenev is a giant, a great writer on his own of the Golden age of Russian literature, another Russian writer I now start to adore.

To conclude, let me paste here an excerpt from a letter by Joseph Conrad, written about Turgenev: 
"... Turgenev's creative activity covers about thirty years. Since it came to an end the social and political events in Russia have moved at an accelerated pace, but the deep origins of them, in the moral and intellectual unrest of the souls, are recorded in the whole body of his work with the unerring lucidity of a great national writer. The first stirrings, the first gleams of the great forces can be seen almost in every page of the novels, of the short stories and of A SPORTSMAN'S SKETCHES--those marvellous landscapes peopled by unforgettable figures.
Those will never grow old. Fashions in monsters do change, but the truth of humanity goes on for ever, unchangeable and inexhaustible in the variety of its disclosures. Whether Turgenev's art, which has captured it with such mastery and such gentleness, is for "all time" it is hard to say. Since, as you say yourself, he brings all his problems and characters to the test of love, we may hope that it will endure at least till the infinite emotions of love are replaced by the exact simplicity of perfected Eugenics. But even by then, I think, women would not have changed much; and the women of Turgenev who understood them so tenderly, so reverently and so passionately--they, at least, are certainly for all time.
Women are, one may say, the foundation of his art. They are Russian of course. Never was a writer so profoundly, so whole- souledly national. But for non-Russian readers, Turgenev's Russia is but a canvas on which the incomparable artist of humanity lays his colours and his forms in the great light and the free air of the world. Had he invented them all and also every stick and stone, brook and hill and field in which they move, his personages would have been just as true and as poignant in their perplexed lives. They are his own and also universal. Any one can accept them with no more question than one accepts the Italians of Shakespeare.
In the larger, non-Russian view, what should make Turgenev sympathetic and welcome to the English-speaking world, is his essential humanity. All his creations, fortunate and unfortunate, oppressed and oppressors, are human beings, not strange beasts in a menagerie or damned souls knocking themselves to pieces in the stuffy darkness of mystical contradictions. They are human beings, fit to live, fit to suffer, fit to struggle, fit to win, fit to lose, in the endless and inspiring game of pursuing from day to day the ever-receding future.
I began by calling him lucky, and he was, in a sense. But one ends by having some doubts. To be so great without the slightest parade and so fine without any tricks of "cleverness" must be fatal to any man's influence with his contemporaries. 

Frankly, I don't want to appear as qualified to judge of things Russian. It wouldn't be true. I know nothing of them. But I am aware of a few general truths, such as, for instance, that no man, whatever may be the loftiness of his character, the purity of his motives and the peace of his conscience--no man, I say, likes to be beaten with sticks during the greater part of his existence. From what one knows of his history it appears clearly that in Russia almost any stick was good enough to beat Turgenev with in his latter years. When he died the characteristically chicken-hearted Autocracy hastened to stuff his mortal envelope into the tomb it refused to honour, while the sensitive Revolutionists went on for a time flinging after his shade those jeers and curses from which that impartial lover of ALL his countrymen had suffered so much in his lifetime. For he, too, was sensitive. Every page of his writing bears its testimony to the fatal absence of callousness in the man.
And now he suffers a little from other things. In truth it is not the convulsed terror-haunted Dostoievski but the serene Turgenev who is under a curse. For only think! Every gift has been heaped on his cradle: absolute sanity and the deepest sensibility, the clearest vision and the quickest responsiveness, penetrating insight and unfailing generosity of judgment, an exquisite perception of the visible world and an unerring instinct for the significant, for the essential in the life of men and women, the clearest mind, the warmest heart, the largest sympathy--and all that in perfect measure. There's enough there to ruin the prospects of any writer. For you know very well, my dear Edward, that if you had Antinous himself in a booth of the world's fair, and killed yourself in protesting that his soul was as perfect as his body, you wouldn't get one per cent. of the crowd struggling next door for a sight of the Double-headed Nightingale or of some weak-kneed giant grinning through a horse collar." 

Wednesday, 19 March 2014

No-phone journal: Entry 8

168 hours and I think I should quit. 
Here is why: though I'm still OK, my refusing to use a phone has caused some inconveniences for my mom, especially today, and at this point my insistence would be rather egoistic. 
The other reason of my experiment, the more personal one, I've somehow dealt with. It's not easy now to predict how things will turn out in the long run, I suppose I don't really care any more, or I do, but have also learnt to accept the worst. 
(In fact, for whatever reasons, today I've been highly excited and cheerful and sociable and talkative beyond recognition, in spite of the sudden snow. Who can deal with my moodiness, instability and unpredictability- I've been switching back and forth between Fanny Price and Mary Crawford. I like to imagine that [censored]. Oh well...) 
*thinking, considering, weighing options, wavering*

Update at 10pm, 20/3: 
I quit. After 184 hours- 7 days- 1 week. 

On the so-called Jane Austen vs Russian dudes literary grudge match

I do notice that it's rather outdated, and the 1st time I saw these 2 posts was also a while ago, but who cares.
My thoughts:
1/ Jane Austen's closer to Tolstoy than Dostoyevsky. 1st, both explore people in society, human relations and interactions rather than the soul, the psyche. 2nd, both depict ordinary people, not extreme, exceptional characters bordering on madness as in Dostoyevsky's world. 3rd, both are realists. 4th, both have a calm, controlled style, whereas Dostoyevsky may once in a while get hysterical, sentimental, mawkish.
Of course, one can list lots of differences between her and Tolstoy, for instance, that she uses a microscope while Tolstoy goes with a telescope, but it's more logical for a person to like both Jane Austen and Tolstoy than to like both her and Dostoyevsky.
2/ I don't think people read and admire Russian novels solely for their ideas, social commentary and existential crises. That may apply very well for Dostoyevsky, whom I see as a great thinker with some flaws as a novelist, but not Tolstoy. Politics and philosophy are indeed important in Tolstoy's works, but such a statement appears to be a dismissal of his ability to depict human beings realistically, slip into their minds and present things from their points of view. This is the reason I see Tolstoy as a genius, a supreme artist, above all novelists I have read in terms of artistic talent.
3/ Jane Austen's fans like her not for the same reasons. Many like her novels for the social commentary and her irony, and see her as a feminist. Some like her philosophy of virtues and regard her books as guides to life and manners.
(Then, of course, there are those who like the romance, the admirable heroines, the happy endings, etc). 
4/ The division here, I think, is rather strange. Not because I like both Jane Austen and Russian literature (at least, a few Russian authors), not because I've seen many other people who do, but because the division here is in the concerns, topics, themes rather than in temperament and artistic vision. The difference in concerns, topics, themes shouldn't be a problem, such different books can be read at different periods, for different mindsets, different moods; there are people who are very consistent, but there are also those who are interested in different things. The difference in temperament and artistic vision, on the other hand, is another story, because it's more than style, and usually may cause a clash. E.g, people can be divided into Tolstoy people and Dostoyevsky people, or Jane Austen people and Charles Dickens people. In this way, a person may not fit the 'theory', but that tends to be uncommon.
5/ I, to be frank, have huge problems with those who link maturity with perception of Jane Austen and who say that one reads Russian literature in teenage years and appreciates Jane Austen more when older, when "order and domesticity have more meaning". 1st, as it goes, I notice that there are a lot more teenagers devouring Jane Austen's books than novels by Russian authors, and among them, a lot of bad readers (Nabokov's standard). 2nd, 1 of the few themes that connect all 6 novels by Jane Austen is self-understanding and correction of foibles, which is more suitable for young people. 3rd, the works by Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, Bulgakov... are more complex and broad, and not everything in them can be grasped in 1 reading in teenage years. 4th, such a comment seems to imply that Russian writers deal with intense, exciting things which fascinate teenagers and which don't hold much meaning later whereas the topics Jane Austen tackles are more important and significant. I find that odd, even funny, and can't help wondering what such people ever got from reading the Russian giants.
6/ I can't decide which, among these, I should bring to a desert island. 
7/ The comment comparing Jane Austen to Turgenev is rather misleading. I started reading "Fathers and sons" yesterday, expecting to find no more than a portrayal and exploration of family relationships and generation gap, only to find philosophy and politics as well. To clarify, I'm stating a fact, rather than giving an assessment on whether it's good or bad.
8/ This essay makes me biased:
It makes me like the idea of liking Turgenev (though in reality, things don't always follow my wishes- I didn't like to like Jane Austen; or I wanted to like Pasternak and didn't; or? methinks it's more common that they do, I did end up liking Emily and Anne Bronte, Tolstoy, Nabokov, Faulkner, Fitzgerald... as I'd imagined). 
OK I digressed. 1 passage captures my attention:
"This resigned determinism is equally true of his letters: there is often regret, but scarcely ever self-reproach. It was what seemed to them Turgenev’s preoccupation with trivial emotions of trivial people, crises in the tedious lives of minor Russian gentry in decaying country houses, his evasion of the central questions of human existence, of good and evil, of the meaning and purpose of the life of the human anthill, his total failure to touch upon what alone mattered—the life of the spirit—it was this that irritated both Tolstoy and Dostoevsky in their very different fashions..." 
I believe this is not the only reason for their conflict, their strained relationships. But, reading it, I can't help thinking what Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky might have thought about Jane Austen's confined world and her focus on trivialities*. Vladimir Nabokov once noted the light streak of philistinism in her, see? And he's 1 of those who refuse to create works that are didactic or moralistic or polemical. 
Anyhow, that's enough for the day. 

*: I reckon this might be disputable. You may argue that emotions, self-understanding, sense, sensitivity, happiness... are not trivialities and I sound as though thinking war and politics are more important. That is not what I mean. You may also argue that her books are comedies of manners. But it can be dull and tiresome very often because of too much gossip, silly conversations and too much focus on practical matters such as income, marriage, etc. One must admit the author can be a bit too mundane sometimes. Unlike the Russians, she's not concerned with politics, philosophy, the soul, the meaning of life, etc. And she has too little ambition, and too little of a rebel in her.

Tuesday, 18 March 2014

No-phone journal: Entry 7

[At the risk of being accused of pretentiousness...]
These days I often think of Ravnedalen, my favourite place in Kristiansand, my paradise, my Walden pond. 
Perhaps in some next days I should go to Sognsvann, or stop at Vølund and stay there for a while. Nordstrand bad is a wonderful place. What I feel, admittedly, never lasts long and cannot bring me out of depression if I happen to be depressed, but now and then when I pass by and witness a magnificent view, a wonder, which never fails to amaze me because the colour of the sea changes constantly in accordance with the sky, I very often feel as though I don't want anything more. 
It's a pity that such thoughts leave as quickly and suddenly as they appear. Afterwards I get back to my former mood, be it good or bad. 
These days I often think of how Russian literature has been affecting me. 
These days I often think of my own frivolity, egoism and idleness, which must have been the sources of my discontent. My tendency to exaggerate my own problems, such as depression, is another. Whilst it's true that I now and then get depressed and suicidal and obsessed with death, it has never reached Sylvia Plath's level, or even half of it. After all I have never attempted suicide, after all I have never gone without a meal or had a sleepless night because of suicidal thoughts, after all I have never thrown or broken things in frustration. And I shouldn't have underestimated my ability to laugh. Making others laugh is a favourable asset, but sometimes it's good enough to be able to laugh. Some people I know hardly do. 
These days I often think of my past selves (let's say I've been a few different types of people in my life). A few things make me blush, some others make me want to dig a hole and stay there forever. Such things one thinks more about than those that give a sense of contentment or triumph or pride. But somebody has said, everybody in life has done things of which they're embarrassed, even ashamed. Denial wouldn't help, I must reconcile with myself. 
These days I often think of the people who have walked out of my life, and wonder how they are and whether they're happier. 

Yesterday, twice I felt for a moment the inconvenience of not having a phone. The 1st time went OK. The 2nd time also did, obviously telepathy's better than a telephone.
Once the 1st inconveniences are dealt with, everything's OK in the long run. 
(Though at 1 point I thought of "Romeo and Juliet"). 
137 hours.