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Das Langweilige ist interessant geworden, weil das Interessante angefangen hat langweilig zu werden. – Thomas Mann

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Tuesday, August 26, 2003

In Shestov�s In Job�s Balance, there is an essay on Tolstoy�s latter writings. LI wants to say there is a brilliant essay on Tolstoy�s latter writings, but one of the effects of the essay is to cast in doubt such unthinking terms as �brilliant.� It is just this kind of flattery, that critical blank of praise, which is a way of turning the reader aside, keeping him from entering the empty room at the heart of the heart of it all. Modern criticism, after all, originated in the royal courts, or at best among the circle around powerful families in Italian city states � and it still retains a lot of the courtier�s arts. Why else do critics feel called upon to praise, to like, or to dislike? It is a way of reconstituting the circle around the patron.

So I won�t say use the word "brilliant." I will say this: Shestov is a philosopher � and hence, a writer of death threats. This essay is one of them.

He quotes a letter written to Tolstoy by Dostoevsky�s official biographer. It is a scalding passage, and I�m going to quote it in full:

There is a firmly established tradition in literature, which is to show to the reader only the good side of a great man's existence. The "lower" truths are of no use to us; what can we do with them? We are convinced that truths are not necessary to us for their own sakes, but only in so far as they can help us to action. This is the position taken up, for example, by Strakhov in writing Dostoevsky's biography, as he himself admits in a letter to Tolstoy which was only published in 1913.
"All the time that I was writing I had to struggle against a feeling of disgust which kept rising in me. I tried to stifle my evil thoughts. Help me to get rid of them! I cannot look upon Dostoevsky either as a good or a happy man. He was malicious, envious, and debauched. Throughout his whole life he was a prey to passions which would have rendered him miserable and ridiculous if he had not been so clever and so wicked. I remembered these feelings vividly while I was writing his biography. In Switzerland once he treated his servant so abominably in my presence that the man could stand it no longer and cried out, "But I am a man too!" I remember how these words struck me as reflecting the ideas of a free Swiss on the rights of man, and addressed to one who was for ever preaching to us about humanist feelings. Such scenes occurred frequently, he was unable to control his bad temper. Many times I answered his ravings with silence, when he burst out suddenly and often perversely, like an old woman; but once or twice I did break out and say very disagreeable things to him.

But he always got the better of ordinary people, and the worst of it was that he enjoyed it and never genuinely repented of his bad behaviour. He liked wickedness and gloried in it. Vistovatov (a professor of Dorpat University) told me how he had boasted to him of having seduced in her bath a little girl who had been brought to him by her governess. Among the characters of his books, the ones most like him are the hero of The Notes from Underground, Svidrigailov, and Stavrogin. Katov refused to publish one of the scenes with Stravrogin (the rape, etc.), but Dostoevsky read it aloud here to a large company of people. With all this, he was inclined to sickly sentimentality, and exalted humanitarian dreams, and it is these dreams, his literary gifts, and his tenderness of heart which endear him to us. In fact, all his novels are an attempt to exonerate their author; they show that the most hideous villainy can exist in a man side by side with the noblest feelings. This is a little commentary to my biography; I could describe that side of Dostoevsky's character; I remember many other incidents even more remarkable than those which I have quoted; my story would have been more genuine; but let the truth perish; let us go on exhibiting the beautiful side of life, just as we always do on every occasion."

I do not know if in the whole of literature there are many documents more valuable than this. I am not even sure whether Strakhov himself really understood the meaning and significance of what he admitted to Tolstoy. Many men in recent times have declared that a lie is better than the truth. Oscar Wilde and Nietzsche have said it, and even Pushkin declares that "The lie which elevates us is dearer to us than a legion of base truths ". But they were all addressing the reader, teaching him. Strakhov is quite simply and sincerely making a confession, and this gives his words a special force and significance. It is probable that this letter produced a great impression on Tolstoy, who was just then finding the burden of the conventional lie very hard to bear, and burned with the desire to purify himself by a full confession. For he himself was one of the priests of the supreme lie, and how beautiful and beguiling that lie was!�

The supreme lie is a certain form of literature, which reflects a certain form of life. This life is, for lack of a better term, ultimately hedonistic. Life is about happiness � about the world we share with others -- not about death. Death, Shestov thinks, is the collapse of the world we share with others into the terrible singularity of the world we can�t share with others � the world of the self that smothers us. Shestov choses to make his point about Tolstoy�s uneasy consciousness of this second world by concentrating on one of his fragment � a little known story entitled, after Gogol, Diary of a Madman.

�Among Tolstoy's posthumous works there is a short, unfinished story called The Diary of a Madman. The subject is very simple. A rich landowner, having learned that an estate was for sale in the province of Penza, makes up his mind to go down, have a look at it and buy it. He is very pleased about it; according to his calculations, he will be able to buy it at a very low figure, almost for nothing. Then, suddenly, one night at an hotel on the way, without any apparent reason, he is seized by a horrible, insufferable anguish. Nothing in his surroundings has changed, nothing new has happened, but until now everything had always inspired him with confidence, everything had seemed to him to be normal, necessary, well - regulated, soothing; he had felt the solid earth beneath his feet and reality on all sides of him. No doubt, no questions! Nothing but answers! Then suddenly, in an instant, in the twinkling of an eye, everything is transformed as though by a magic wand. Peace, answers, the solid earth, consciousness of right, and the easy feeling of lightness, simplicity and certainty which springs from this � all suddenly disappear. Around him are nothing but looming questions with their inevitable train of importunate anxiety, of doubt, and senseless, gnawing, invincible terrors. The ordinary means by which these painful thoughts are usually routed are completely ineffectual.

"I tried to think of things which interested me; of the acquisition of the estate, of my wife. Not only did I find nothing pleasant in these thoughts, but they were all as nothing to me. The horror of my wasted life overshadowed everything. I tried to go to sleep. I lay down, but no sooner was I on my bed than terror roused me again. And anxiety! An anxiety like one feels before one is going to be sick, but it was moral. Fear, anguish - we think of death as terrible, but when we look back upon life, it is the agony of life which overwhelms us! Death and life seemed in some way to be confounded with one another. Something tore my existence to rags, and yet could not succeed in tearing it completely. I went once more to look at my fellow-sleepers; I tried again to get to sleep; but terror was ever before me, red, white, and square. Something was tearing, but it still held."

Thus Tolstoy pitilessly strips himself before our eyes. There are few writers who show us truths like these. And if one wants, if one is able to see this truth - for even naked truth is not easy to see - then a whole series of problems arise which are out of all relation with our ordinary thoughts. How are we to apprehend these groundless terrors which so suddenly appeared, red, white, and square?�

Next post, if we can do it, will explore just that question.

Monday, August 25, 2003


WP's article, today, on the death of writing systems is a bit incoherent.

The article's theme is hearteningly democratic. A writing system -- for instance, Sumerian cuneiform -- dies out because there are too many restrictions on its use. That, at least, is the finding of a certain group of scholars:

"The collaboration among Houston, University of Cambridge Egyptologist John Baines and Assyriologist Jerrold S. Cooper of Johns Hopkins University began at a meeting that Houston hosted earlier this year to discuss the origins of writing. What resulted was "Last Writing," an essay on script death published recently in the British journal Comparative Studies in Society and History. Its basic conclusion: Writing systems die when those who use them restrict access to them."

. But its instances seem to cast that theory into doubt. Since "Both Egyptian and cuneiform survived for 4,000 years, a millennium longer than the Latin alphabet that Westerners use today, and both died in the early centuries of the Christian era after long declines," one has to wonder whether the extinction thesis of restricted use -- with its implication of rarity of users -- is a prime cause, or the result of some other factor. If, in fact, the long decline is defined, in fact, by rarity of users -- so that, by definition, access to the writing system is restricted. For if the Egyptian system lasted 4,000 years with the same level of restriction over time -- that is, with about the same number of rare users -- then it's death is not due to the restriction of access, but is caused by some concerted attack, conceptual, linguistic, or otherwise, on those users. If it had more users in the course of its functioning, and less users over time during its decline, this would essentially make the WP assertion nonsensical. It is like explaining that fire burns because it is hot.

In evolutionary terms, one has to wonder about the counter-case: what benefit accrues to the system by restricting access? It might be that the initial flood of Greek culture into Egypt, after Alexander's invasion, would have displaced even a more widespread writing system -- and that the very restrictedness and prestige of the welders of the older system preserved it.

So, given these weirdnesses in the article, we looked around to see if we could find other reports on Houston, Baines and Cooper's study. Here's the Brigham Yount U. news release (Houston is a BYU scholar):

"Changes in writing systems mirror larger changes that take place, not because of technological 'advances,' but because of feelings about the associations of past kinds of communication,� said Stephen Houston, Jesse Knight university professor of anthropology at Brigham Young University. �This is a new take on communicative 'technologies' -- that they are completely saturated with cultural values and conditioned by history.�

"Houston, a Maya expert, was joined by Oxford Egyptologist John Baines and Johns Hopkins� Jerrold Cooper, who studies cuneiform. Their study is reported in the new issue of Comparative Studies in Society and History, published by Cambridge University Press.

This a brilliant paper by three experts in two ancient scripts of the Old World and one of the New,� said Michael Coe, professor emeritus of anthropology at Yale and author of the bestselling Breaking the Maya Code. �Until now, no one has analyzed the deaths of these scripts from a comparative perspective. As for the Maya writing system itself, only Stephen Houston could have covered such a complex subject in such a convincing way. This is probably the world's most difficult script, and Professor Houston has been in the forefront of its ongoing decipherment.�

Here, there's no mention of restriction of access. In other words, the progressive thesis, which is what the research tends to dispute, is sustained, under a different form, by the WP article, in contradiction to the very study upon which it is reporting. A Derridean would expect no less. Because the writers of the WP article can't give up the thesis that writing systems "progress," with those that are technologically superior succeeding those that are inferior, the WP article distorts the whole point of the Houston, Baines and Cooper study.

Hmm. One could make extensive analogies to other WP distortions, of late, about Middle Eastern cultures. But one won't.

Sunday, August 24, 2003


The NYT has a nice story about the peaceful coexistence between Americans and Iraqis in the city of Diwaniya

"As the area around Baghdad endured a week of repeated violence, a happier scene unfolded in this city, a two-hour drive to the south.

American soldiers, without helmets or flak jackets, attended graduation ceremonies of the Diwaniya University Medical School. At ease with the Iraqi students and their parents, the American marines laughed, joked and posed in photographs. One by one, the students walked up to thank them, for Marine doctors had taught classes in surgery and gynecology and helped draw up the final exams.

"We like the Americans very much here," said Zainab Khaledy, 22, who received her medical degree last Sunday. "We feel better than under the old regime. We have problems, like security, but everything is getting better."

In goes on in this vein for quite a while, making Diwaniya seem like a candidate for Forbes One Hundred Best Cities to Work In. No attacks on friendly American GIs, no anti-American grafitti on the walls, the lion lying down with the lamb, etc.

Yet according to Spanish new agencies, the a military base located in this 'relatively peaceful' city in which Spanish soldiers are being trained was attacked just two days ago. 19 mortar shells were lobbed into the camp. Perhaps the NYT reporter doesn't pay attention to the papers owned by the NYT Company, because the story is up on the International Herald Tribune website. Alas, it is in pdf. Still, it does make you wonder who is in wonderland, here. At the very least, I think that the editors of Forbes would hesitate to recommend a city as Great to Work In that was subject to occasional mortar bombardments.