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Thursday, 31 July 2014

Free will- Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky

Reading Memoirs from the House of the Dead by Dostoyevsky, trans. Jessie Coulson.
In the epilogue of War and Peace, Tolstoy argues that free will is an illusion. Human beings, in order to live, must believe themselves to have freedom, but there are always so many factors that we cannot plan and cannot control everything, or even anything. Things happen because they're supposed to happen.
Dostoyevsky argues for free will. In Notes from Underground, attacking utilitarianism and rationalism, Dostoyevsky stresses: 1, that human beings are complex and self-contradictory; 2, that reason has its limitations; 3, that human beings don't always choose profit; and 4, that a man may risk his so-called happiness and ginger bread only to prove that he has free will. In Memoirs from the House of the Dead, he says that man can always adapt, but also discusses several factors that help people survive in (Siberian) prison, such as an occupation (a job, a trade or a hobby), something they can possess as their own, the belief that the compulsory work they do is useful and productive (something meaningless such as carrying water or soil from 1 place to another and back again, several times, is torture and would certainly lead to madness), hope, dreams, respect, dignity, etc. and above all, money, which gives the illusion of freedom, because when a man spends his money, he carries out his own will, so that he can convince himself that he has more freedom than he actually does. Dostoyevsky later writes, "It is high time for us to stop our apathetic complaining that our environment has ruined us", "... it is true that our environment swallows up much of what is in us, it still does not devour everything...". 
So it seems that Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky have opposite views, and as I find Dostoyevsky right, I must disagree with Tolstoy. Yet I think both are right. Tolstoy says that free will is an illusion, not in order to say that people don't have to take responsibility for their own actions, especially when committing crimes, but in order to say again what has been repeated many times throughout the book, that historians are greatly mistaken to single out 1 cause or to attribute everything to 1 man's will, whereas in war there are lots of people and lots of factors beyond our control.
They only explore 2 different aspects.

Wednesday, 30 July 2014

On D. H. Lawrence

Hola. 
Nobody here asked, but here I am, back from Paris and Barcelona! (Photos later)



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Having tried several times to write about Lady Chatterley's Lover, and failed, I'm going to write about D. H. Lawrence.
[Limited, biased view, based on 1 single book Lady Chatterley's Lover plus the author's "Apropos..."] 


This author's irritating. His syntax. His excessive exclamation marks. His dashes. His repetitiousness. All these things seem like nothing but get on one's nerves like nails scratching continually at the door. Above all, his tone and personality, as felt in the narrator. 
Not that he's a bad writer. No. Many passages in the book are brilliant, some even ecstatic; Lady Chatterley's Lover also offers a new take on adultery, love and sex, and the relationship between the mind and the body (it can be said to be a response to Madame Bovary and Anna Karenina, in some ways). But alas, all those talks about humanity and universe and class and social conflicts and life and nature and machines and industrialisation and civilisation and the leisure classes and the lower classes and the individual and the mass and mass products and bolshevism and England and illusion and hypocrisy and universal questions and beauty and mystery and men and women and the body and love and physical intimacy and orgasm and blah blah blah, they drive me crazy. Like Tolstoy, D. H. Lawrence wants to tackle big themes, to say lots of things, and to compress everything into his book, yet unlike Tolstoy, he lacks some kind of rhythm, some kind of flow, or simply some sensitivity, to weave them naturally into the narrative; moreover, he takes everything too seriously- all conversations are discussions, everything can be turned into a discussion, even sex and pleasure. In this book, everything is treated with seriousness and solemnity, as though the smallest, apparently most trivial bits have a much deeper meaning and significance. Talk talk talk, talk talk talk. D. H. Lawrence borrows Connie's voice to say that Marcel Proust "doesn't have feelings, he only has streams of words about feelings" (which, as written in the notes, is his true opinion)- I can say nothing about Proust, whose works I have not read, but in my humble opinion this line seems to apply well for D. H. Lawrence. 
It's, very often, horrible, even unbearable, in the 300 pages of the book. It's even worse in the 30 pages in which he discusses the book and some matters related to it. I wouldn't have invited him to dinner. Lots of times, in my reading, I only wanted to yell "Why so serious-sss?" (in the Joker's voice), or "Chill, man. Just chill." He takes everything so seriously that I feel as though he's incapable of pleasure and enjoyment. He probably can't have small talk either. 
In short, he's nuts. 
At the same time, I also feel that he doesn't see individuals, only humanity as a whole, or people before vs people "today" (he repeatedly says "today" and "nowadays" and "modern people"), or people as divided into his various categories. I like novels both to deal with individuals and to say something about humanity- this book doesn't really fit the 1st, and I'm afraid, nor the 2nd.
Then I feel that, perhaps he's on a different wavelength. I do like Lady Chatterley's Lover in some parts, and this book has quite an inexplicable power- even while feeling irritated, I didn't feel like I was forcing myself to continue, I just kept reading it. His other works may be different, or I may need a different mindset. 

Thursday, 10 July 2014

Concluding notes on "War and Peace"

So I've finished reading War and Peace (8/6- 9/7).
a) I probably won't watch any adaptation. As with The Sound and the Fury, I've had quite vivid images of the characters with which I don't want someone else's vision to interfere; even though none of these characters have touched me in the strange, inexplicable way Caddy has, I spent 1 month with them.
And what can a film adaptation offer that the book doesn't already have?
b) I began reading the epilogue, preparing to say that War and Peace didn't need an epilogue, yet couldn't say so. It isn't unnecessary. Tolstoy discusses life and history, expands his ideas, elaborates, gives arguments and counterarguments, and challenges commonly accepted views. A novel doesn't need them, indeed, but War and Peace is more than a novel.
c) War and Peace isn't without flaws. It may be a loose baggy monster. Some parts may be tedious or hard to read. There may be lots of repetitions. Tolstoy's views may be debatable. A few details may be contrived. Etc, etc. But so what? Is any great novel flawless? Here is an epic with an immense panorama of humanity- through it Tolstoy expands the scope of a normal novel and at the same time tackles the lives of individuals, which are missing in the works of historians. Here is a masterpiece that overwhelms, which makes one wonder how 1 person could write a book of such size and scope, with that many characters (or more specifically, how did he know how a girl felt?). Here the author presents to us a war, a period, a nation and a people, and with great insight and vivid descriptions lets us enter the characters' minds and feel as though experiencing what they go through; he depicts them in war and in peace, describes their reactions to societal issues such as war, national identity... and to personal ones such as love, betrayal, fear... Here is a work of art about all kinds of experiences, such as birth, death, dancing, hunting, gambling, fighting, falling in love, falling out of love, etc, making one feel alive and love life in all of its manifestations. Here is a book which deals with tragedy, doubt, sorrows, broken-heartedness, disappointment, disillusionment, betrayal... but which doesn't have a cynical, bitter tone, as Tolstoy, in spite of everything, believes in goodness and makes us also do.
The imperfections are therefore insignificant.
d) Choosing between War and Peace and Anna Karenina, as the better work, is difficult.
I can only say that I prefer Anna Karenina, but it's personal, perhaps largely because I read it 1st.
e) I was indeed hard on Liza. She doesn't deserve that, nor does she deserve the way she's treated by the Bolkonskys.
f) The scenes between Marya and Nikolay before their marriage are magnificent. Jane Austen couldn't have written it better.
g) Marya, irrespective of her piousness (and her perfection, to Nikolay), has her defects. She has pride. She has prejudices, against Natasha (though they later disappear) and then against Sonya. She finds herself unable to love Andrey's son as much as her own children. And these things make her human.
After a while it's not only pity- I come to like her a lot more in the end. She also grows stronger.
h) If I were asked to pick some languages I wished I could speak without learning them (because quite frankly, I have no gift for languages), I would definitely include Russian (others: French, German, Spanish and Japanese).
i) Now, to end the post, I don't know what to say, so here is a quote by Isaak Babel:
"If the world could write by itself, it would write like Tolstoy."

Monday, 7 July 2014

The philosophical part in "War and Peace"

As I've said, War and Peace is 3 books put together: a novel, a historical chronicle and a philosophical work on life, religion and history. 
1/ Life: 
In volume IV part III chapter 13 of War and Peace, God Sees The Truth, But Waits appears in skeletal form.
Here, the story's told by Karatayev, a man Pierre befriends in prison. He seems to be Tolstoy's peasant ideal- an embodiment of Christian virtues, simplicity, acceptance, firmness, endurance, strength, forgiveness, directness, etc, or, in Pierre's words, "an unfathomable, rounded, eternal personification of the spirit of simplicity and truth". All the values Tolstoy considers essential and stresses many times in later works are found in this character: Karatayev lives a simple life, works, finds happiness in simple things, accepts life as it is, forgives, chooses not to judge and never complains.
Having read this story gives me 2 advantages: 1st, I know the full version of the tale, with the details missing in this version; 2nd, reading it now in a context gives me perspective and therefore has more meaning. Whatever one thinks about the story and Karatayev, it does have more meaning when one considers the context that Pierre and Karatayev are both in prison; wider: away from society and luxury, Pierre contemplates the life he has lived and realises what he truly needs and thinks about the people in his life; and the wider context is the book as a whole. Tolstoy's works are always didactic, but they are also real and full of life. It's difficult, and perhaps not a good idea, to try to put it into words, but take forgiveness- Tolstoy writes about forgiveness but also describes how hard it is to forgive that sometimes only under unusual circumstances (such as in deathbed) can one forgive. This makes me think of the revelation I had when reading Anna Karenina- the line "Thou shalt not judge" had meant nothing until I came to understand it through Anna Karenina, through the way Tolstoy slips into the mind of each of his characters and lets us know what they think, how they feel and why they do what they do. Now, War and Peace gives me something else. 

2/ Religion: 
Tolstoy's critical of organised religion. 
Pierre joins the Freemasonry, then what happens? He continues living exactly as before, with lust, sloth, gluttony, perhaps also wrath. The only thing that changes is that from then on he meets other freemasons and participates in rituals- the rituals are meaningless, Pierre doesn't change and some people join the organisation for the mere purpose of gaining contacts and acquaintances, such as Boris. 
Tolstoy makes his point clearer by creating Marya Bolkonskaya and later Platon Karatayev. They perform no ritual and hardly preach anything- they practice the teachings. 

3/ History: 
Tolstoy begins volume III poking fun at historians, and repeats many times later. The main ideas are: 
- There are no single causes. Everything's caused by numerous factors. 
- Something happens because it's supposed to happen. 
- Nothing happens according to plans. No one can control everything, or even anything. 
- There's no such thing as military genius. Historians are mistaken to attribute everything to the will of 1 man. 
- Very little of what the leaders order is carried out, there are always unforeseeable circumstances, communication issues, competition between soldiers, etc. 
- Commanders-in-chief matter more than top leaders such as Napoleon or Kutuzov, and less than the soldiers that are in battle. 
- Some people who look ordinary and get forgotten may have a vital role in the army. 
- The size of the troops is not the most important factor. 
- Morale may be more important than the number of soldiers and the generals' strategies. 
- Historians have hindsight- they may praise someone for a correct theory/ prediction because it's proven right, but it's just 1 of the many theories and predictions they had, many of which turned out wrong. 
These points make sense and provoke some interesting thoughts. He makes one question history and think differently about the explanations for historical events. 
After all, how much of history (the study) is facts? There's no such thing as fiction or nonfiction, only narrative.
Update on 9/7: 
- The concepts of chance and genius cannot explain historical events. 
- Intellectual activity cannot be singled out as the cause or the expression of an entire historical movement. 
- The transfer of popular will to leaders is a fallacy. 
- "The movement of peoples is determined not as historians have supposed, by the exercise of power, or the intellect, of both together, but by the actions of all involved; all the people who come together in such a way that those who participate most directly in the activity assume the least responsibility for it, and vice versa." 
- Actions are partly free, partly a product of necessity. Freedom and necessity are independent- neither is absolute. 
- The extent of free will or necessity changes as we examine an action from different perspectives- there are 3 variables: "the relationship between the man committing the act and the external world, his relationship to time and the relationship between him and the causes which led to the act." 
- Free will is an illusion. 

Sunday, 6 July 2014

.............

Still reading War and Peace, but all of a sudden I've had another attack. 
All of a sudden come up so many questions. Why read? Why write? Why have this blog at all? What have I been doing all of my life and what am I going to do? Why live? What's the point? 
So these days I haven't written much. In awe and then in despair I don't know what to write about a book of such size and scope- what a masterpiece!, and after jotting down a few sentences, a few trivial, superficial remarks, I can write no more. 
Everything seems pointless. 
I don't even know why I keep this blog. 

Friday, 4 July 2014

3 deaths

Volume IV part I chapter 16. 
Tolstoy's main concern, as can be seen in his works, is the meaning of life, and therefore, he many times writes about death, the process of dying, the struggle, the waiting... If I'm not mistaken, up to this point in War and Peace there have been 3 deaths that are described in detail (2 other important deaths are Liza's and Helene's, but Liza dies in childbirth and Helene's death is only mentioned). 
The 1st one is count Kirill Bezukhov's. The dying man isn't the focus; instead, Tolstoy draws our attention to the preparations, to all the people coming into and out of the room and waiting for his death without any sadness, to all the relatives discussing his will and the heir Pierre and their own future, to the hypocrites wearing appropriate facial expressions and feigning sorrows; and at the same time, Tolstoy describes Pierre, the only person amidst all this mess who doesn't care about the fortune and who remains passive the whole time and outside of it all. 
The 2nd one is the old prince Bolkonsky's. Tolstoy doesn't slip into the old man's mind- rather, he writes down what goes on in Marya's mind, but one can see that the approaching death brings both some kind of epiphany as they come to understand themselves and their love for each other, and at the same time, resolves the conflict that has existed for a long time between them. 
The 3rd, and most interesting, death is Andrey's. Tolstoy doesn't forget the feelings and actions of Natasha and Marya, but this time puts more focus on the dying man's thoughts and emotions. One should also note that twice before Andrey has faced death. For some reasons he's associated with no.3: 3 times he is disillusioned, 3 times he runs away from reality, 3 times he faces death, 3 times he experiences awakening. Each time, there is an image: the vast sky, the sight of Anatole and finally, Natasha; yet the 3rd time involves a struggle between life and death, between acceptance of death and yearning for life, because he loves Natasha, more than anything in the world. Unlike Bezukhov, Andrey isn't surrounded by a bunch of people who wait him to die soon. Unlike his father, and I should add, Ivan Ilyich, he doesn't die with regret. 
At last, he dies in peace. 

Thursday, 3 July 2014

"War and Peace", volume III

Volume III part III chapter 31. 
In volumes I and II, the peace parts and the war parts are separate. From chapter III, they no longer are- when Napoleon invades Russia. There's more history, and more philosophy. 
That reminds me of Flaubert's comments on War and Peace in a letter to Turgenev: 
"Thanks for having me read Tolstoy's novel. It is 1st rate! What a painter and psychologist! The 1st 2 volumes are sublime, but a 3rd goes downhill terribly. He repeats himself and he philosophises. One sees finally the author and the Russian, and up to then one saw only Nature and Humanity. At times, it seemed to me there were things like Shakespeare's. I cried out in admiration while reading- but it is long!" 
(http://books.google.no/books?id=NV1m9zDBWyIC&lpg=PA26&ots=OvjiEzHm76&dq=flaubert%20turgenev%20letters%20painter%20psychologist%20philosophizing%20war%20and%20peace&pg=PA26#v=onepage&q=flaubert%20turgenev%20letters%20painter%20psychologist%20philosophizing%20war%20and%20peace&f=false
Place War and Peace next to Anna Karenina, it's difficult to pick- War and Peace has greater scope and grand scale, covering a long period with a lot more characters in many places, Anna Karenina has a smaller focus and therefore greater psychological depth. The latter is also tighter and, I think, more artistically perfect. 
E.g: Why does Pierre run into Dolokhov whilst going around to see the soldiers? Why does the wounded Andrey end up next to his rival Anatole in the military hospital? Why is he taken to the Rostovs? Why do the Rostovs, on their way out of Moscow, run into Pierre? 
Less problematic: Why does Helene ask for a divorce when Pierre has fallen in love with Natasha, hence she makes it convenient for him to marry someone else? etc. 
Of course, if one examines all great novels and questions the events logically, there would always be something unnatural, unconvincing, contrived or merely functional (such as the functional deaths in Jane Austen's novels, according to Nabokov, which do nothing but move the story forward). Even Flaubert's Madame Bovary, often called a perfect novel, has some impossibilities, as pointed out by Nabokov in his lecture. The question is whether it is so obvious that it disturbs the reader (such as in Jane Eyre, Jane leaves Rochester and ends up at the least possible place- her cousins' home, and later returns to Rochester to find the path cleared of all obstacles). 
Such issues in War and Peace do bother me a bit, but there are so many marvellous things that these imperfections can be tolerated. 
Take the scenes right before and after the old prince Bolkonsky's death. For years, the interactions and relations between him and his daughter Marya are the same- he abuses her, terrorises her whilst she endures his temper and by doing so prides herself in her own self-sacrifice, he doesn't become nicer, she doesn't become stronger. Suddenly, the approaching death, with the awareness of it, brings about a change, some kind of epiphany. The old prince realises he has wronged his daughter, but more interesting is what goes on in Marya's mind, from worry and fear to relief and the wish that her father will die and free her from torment, followed by shame, guilt, bad conscience, then sorrow, grief and lack of interest in all things. But the situation doesn't allow her to grieve for long. She must stand up and take care of practical matters, and her reaction in such a time of lonesomeness and despair is to try to think like her father and brother, and to act like them (though she doesn't have their decisiveness and authority). It isn't because of her sex, but rather, her personality- under the same circumstances, Natasha would act as herself instead of pretending to be someone else, and have greater authority. One can see that in a later chapter, when Natasha helps with the packing for her family. 
Now consider Andrey. I've written before that he's disillusioned twice- with marriage and with military life. He's disillusioned a 3rd time, when he falls in love again and once more finds life worth living and everything with meaning. Each time, he suffers, because he always runs away- the 1st time, into the army, the 2nd time, to the country and the 3rd time, again to the army. And the 3rd time is worst, he suffers a great deal to the point that he can't bear meeting anyone from the past, as though his life's divided into 2 parts, with and without Natasha. All the descriptions of his meeting with Pierre are sublime. 
These passages are magnificent. 
Concerning the philosophising, although I'm more interested in the people and their relationships, I'm fine with it, unlike some readers including Flaubert. 19th century people weren't used to it, but such a mix of genres can be found in postmodern literature, Tolstoy's ahead of his time. 
I'll write more about War and Peace and Anna Karenina